ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Aloft in a balloon above the city she left nearly four years ago, she most likely wasn’t thinking about how the very air upon which she floated had once felt thick as sludge in her frail lungs and left her gasping to breathe it.
All that mattered now was that she kept floating.
“I try not to think about when I was sick,” Alorah Plont, 16, said after returning to earth. “I don’t talk about it.”
She was 12 when she appeared in this column on July 30, 2014, as a severely sick child who could barely breathe without pain, could barely remain out of the hospital when infections flared and breathing became almost impossible.
Back then, no one, not even her doctors, knew what was causing her debilitating respiratory illness or what could be done to save her, except for keeping her on a hefty regimen of medications and hermetically sealing her off from viruses, bacteria, pollen, dust, cats and nearly everything else.
Back then, her illness finally drove her family to make a tough choice to try to save her life:
They had to leave Albuquerque.
“It was a hell of a Hail Mary pass,” said her mother, Angela Strong, whose marriage six years ago to Nathan Strong bonded her three children – including Alorah – with his three children. Moving to Colorado Springs to be closer to Alorah’s doctors at the Breathing Institute-Children’s Hospital Colorado meant tearing apart their blended family – hers made the move; his could not.
“We knew saying goodbye would be upsetting, but we hoped in the end we would have a live child,” she said.
The move, which took place January 2015, also meant saying goodbye to good friends, good jobs, green chile and the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The Strongs have served on chase crews since 2004.
“We love the balloons,” Nathan Strong said. “Many of these people are like family to us.”
In 2014, when Alorah’s illness was at its worst – and so were the family’s finances because of the frequent trips to Colorado Springs for Alorah’s treatment – that balloon family supported the Strongs with donations and fundraising with balloon pins sold by a crew known as the Launch Site Divas.
Others, including many of you readers, also contributed to the family’s GoFundMe account.
“Without Albuquerque rallying around Alorah, we wouldn’t have been able to move,” her mother said. “We are so thankful for that.”
The Strongs visit Albuquerque as time and health allow. They’ve returned each fiesta to crew for at least one balloon launch, but this year they are here for all nine days, partly as a birthday gift to Nathan, who turns 40 today, and partly because they can.
Because a curious thing happened after they moved to Colorado Springs – Alorah got better.
The Hail Mary pass connected.
“We don’t know why it did,” Angela said during our visit between balloon launches and Golden Pride burritos. “The theory is the allergens and dust that sits in something like a bowl in Albuquerque gets blown away in Colorado. Or it might be the lack of as much pollen in the air up there. Really, though, we just don’t know.”
What they do know is that sometime after the move, doctors were able to reduce Alorah’s medications from seven to two. There have been no emergency room visits, no lengthy hospitalizations. Gone are the surgical masks, the constant fatigue, the bloating like a hot air balloon from the steroidal medications.
Alorah, who had been so sick that she was kept isolated from the outside world for two years, went back to school in 2016.
She’s a junior now at Sand Creek High School, earning high grades in college prep courses, performing in musicals and singing in the school choir. She walks to school, hikes, plays basketball and just recently got her driving learner’s permit.
She has friends. She has plans to become a nurse.
“She’s totally a different kid,” her mother said.
Alorah smiled at that.
“Yeah, I really am,” she said. “That really didn’t sink in until I was back in school and thought, whoa, I’m a lot better.”
What has stayed the same is Alorah’s steady joy and snaggletooth smile that shone even on her worst days.
Doctors have warned the family that as mysteriously as Alorah’s illness came and went, it could come back just as mysteriously.
That may be part of why Alorah prefers not to think too much about those years. Better to live in the now for as long as now lasts.
“She lost two years of her childhood, and so we say go, experience everything you can,” her mother said. “You lost so much. Go have fun, be a kid. We assume we have so much control, but we really don’t. It can still all go away. So while she can, she will.”
And so she does, snaggletooth smile and all, soaring high above the fray.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg.