Not all kids awaken at home Christmas morn to a floor covered in presents. Some children are not as fortunate. They spend Christmases — and sometimes virtually most days of their young lives — in hospitals and treatment centers. Those facilities are their homes for the holidays. Certainly not the kind of setting for a Hallmark card image or sentimental Norman Rockwell painting.
But thanks to the wonderful gesture of a courageous young woman, children at the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital received gifts this Christmas just as others have received them years past.
Over 15,000 collected gifts spread over 12 years until COVID struck. Since that happened, virtual donations continue. All because of a simple kind act that spawned thousands of like kind acts.
Lindsey Salsberry was spontaneous, athletic, bright and giving. She was salutatorian of the Wellsville High School Class of 2004, She seemingly had a full future in front of her. But, sadly, it was not meant to be.
Toward the end of her freshman year at West Virginia University she developed a rare nerve cancer with a survival rate in the single-digits.
She was able to receive her treatment at the acclaimed Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital despite being 19 at the time. Despite the best of care she was unable to beat the odds.
“In the 22 months she fought her cancer, she endured countless surgeries, treatments and procedures always keeping her infectious smile on her face,” said her dad, Rick Salsberry, who many know as a longtime Beaver Local Schools educator and a current member of the Wellsville Board of Education. He also serves as Wellsville’s representative on the Columbiana County Career and Technical Center Board of Education. He now works with troubled students and those with behavioral needs. With the kind of gentle touch he passed along to his children, he mentors and teaches these youngsters. He also serves as a student escort for bus tours that go to locations such as Washington DC and New York City.
Rick and his wife, Linda, of Wellsville, had three children. Lindsey was the middle child. Rick now lives in Chicago and Brittany in Wellsville.
During Lindsey’s last Christmas, she mentioned a young girl she had befriended who had to spend Christmas Day in the hospital. She wished she could have given her a gift.
Her friends and family have made that wish come true for so many children over the last 14 years since a special project began. Actually Lindsey’s wish was a wish that keeps giving. Thanks to the generosity of those who loved her and want to keep her memory alive, so many gifts are received that children throughout the year and not just at Christmas get them. Toys are given to hospitalized children on birthdays. Toys are given to new patients to help with the transition of being hospitalized. Some become comfort gifts for children having difficult times.
Lindsey’s devastating illness sneaked up on her like tragedy often does. In high school, she was a hurdler on the Wellsville track team. At the end of senior year, she hurt a knee running track. She would often run the 100 dash and the 100 hurdles back-to-back — no easy task..
She visited a doctor at Allegheny General Hospital and it appeared she would require minor right knee surgery. She would then have an entire summer to recuperate before beginning her sophomore year at West Virginia University where she was a pharmacy major.
“Doctor, can you give me something for the pain?” Those words are often innocuous. They are heard in doctor’s offices and hospitals countless times during the course of any given day.
But those words spoken by Lindsey raised concern in her doctor when she was being checked for the knee injury.
“He got a real funny look on his face,” Rick recalled.
An MRI of her hip was ordered.
“We weren’t home yet when we got a call,” Rick said.
It was a 100cc tumor on the sciatic nerve of her right leg.
“It looked like the size of a piece of sausage,” he said. “A bulky thing along her sciatic nerve.”
Surgery was done to remove the tumor. She was left with no movement below her right leg and no feeling in her foot.
But true to her nature, Lindsey was starting to walk just three days following surgery. Because she experienced no feeling in her foot — including no pain — she was given IVs in that unlikely spot. Which brought looks of wonder from those seeing her all the while she had a grin on her face.
She endured 30 dreadful rounds of radiation and physical therapies during the summer of 2005. Then a startling reveal via scans: the cancer had metastasized and went into both lungs in August of that summer.
“We were told this was bad,” Rick remembered.
They went to the Sloan Kettering Institute Cancer Center in New York City.
Lindsey was 19 and every bit a mature adult. Doctors insisted she make her own decisions.
“She would make them for herself,” Rick said. “They talked to her directly and pretty much told her what was going on: that the cancer was going to grow and get worse.”
Lindsey was told she could accept it or try to fight it with “horrible, horrible treatment.”
Being the scrapper she always was, she opted for treatment which was what her doctor in New York City wanted to hear. He had a colleague at the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. She was accepted despite being 19 years old.
Her dad vividly recalls breaks in treatment when he and his beloved Lindsey shared special moments like attending a “Beauty and the Beast” presentation — eight rows back from a Broadway center stage. They took in all the NYC sights and sounds, pressing memories into their own minds’ scrapbooks.
Lindsey had surgery to have a port inserted. She started a chemo drip that ran for five straight days. It was now October 2005.
She lost her hair. She had a first blood transfusion on her 20th birthday, Oct. 27, 2005. Some birthday gift, huh?
Every three weeks she received another chemo round. On Jan. 6, right lung surgery was performed. Six golf ball tumors were removed from her lung. Four like-sized tumors were taken from her left lung two weeks later .
Lindsey restarted chemo and radiation which burned her esophagus.
“It had to have been miserable for her,” Rick said. “But she never cried. She never had any of those ‘why me?’ moments.”
Subsequent scans taken during June and July 2006 were clear.
Relieved, the Salsberry family felt they may beaten cancer. A story in The Review was published detailing her beating the bad cancer odds.
Lindsey began plans for school and living in an apartment in Morgantown.
But the lung tumors reappeared. Still Lindsey remained upbeat.
“Just another lung surgery,” she would declare. She kidded — from scars — that she had grown gills. Cancer wasn’t about to take her sense of humor.
She was smitten with a young, “cute” doctor who would become a buddy, a person-to-person connection outside of her family.
In 2006, she went through four total complete open lung surgeries. Her longest stay in the hospital was a blood issue. She was given 28 units of blood. For comparison, an adult has about 10 units of blood in his or her body. A unit is roughly a pint.
Lindsey’s final lung surgery came in November 2006. She enjoyed a trip to Disney. The day before her final lung surgery she attended the Pitt-WVU game at Heinz Field with her brother and parents.
Shortly thereafter she had scalp lesions surgeries. Terrible headaches arrived. A tumor had taken hold in her brain.
In December 2006, the family talked to a brain surgeon. They were told surgery was needed: not live-saving but life-sustaining surgery. That is when it completely hit home.
On Jan. 27, 2007 Lindsey received a wig for the first time. A curly, blonde wig in contrast to the long, black hair that she lost due to the cancer treatment.
The next day she wore it for the first time on a drive to the hospital with her dad which ended when a pickup went left of center and struck the Salsberry vehicle. Rick was left with a concussion and leg bruising. Lindsey was uninjured, thanks to a seatbelt.
When early March arrived, bad signs began appearing and her body was beginning to shut down.
“We were told the end was coming,” Rick related. “She was given about a week.”
Lindsey was unfazed, She wasn’t giving up. Her family had given her a puppy chihuahua on President’s Day weekend from a breeder in Dallas. Lindsey and “Bailey” went everywhere together. Right up until the end.
Lindsey Marie Salsberry died on March 13, 2007. She was only 21, a brave young woman who never sought pity. Who was never bitter.
Rick remembered those final moments.
“She had a visit from Greg Davis, who was her track coach,” he said. “She was telling us that everything was OK. She was comforting us!”
Lindsey was told it was time to let go. After some labored breathing, she passed calmly away. Her dad was beside her, holding her hand. Bailey was cuddled at her side.
She rests at Spring Hill Cemetery in Wellsville.
“People couldn’t believe how brave she was,” Rick said.“She never showed fear.”
Beside courage, her lasting legacy was spawned by that simple act of wanting to give a Christmas toy to a young girl named Sarah in the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital. That, in turn, led to a toy drive. It began in 2007, the first Christmas following Lindsey’s death. Her parents took it upon themselves to take toys to the hospital. Then family members began to assist. It took off.
Jump ahead and there are gifts distributed daily — not just at Christmastime — to children with bad illnesses. All because of Lindsey and the inspiration she bore. The toys are dedicated to the oncology ward of the Pittsburgh Children’s Hospital.
Every penny donated to the hospital goes toward year-round gifts for kids, many of whom might not have a single toy. Over 15,000 toys were collected and donated until COVID harsly intervened two years ago, wiping out fundraisers.
But online donations totaled $4,500 in 2020 and so far $3,600 has been collected for the most recent Christmas drive, topping a goal of $2,500.
Time can often dull even the worst of pain. Rick said acceptance did come. Still, he wonders what kind of life the talented Lindsey would have forged? Would she have given him and his wife grandkids?
“It’s easy to wonder why it happened,” he continued. “She was such an awesome, awesome person. She would’ve been a great aunt. I feel bad for those who didn’t get to know her.”
Rick and Linda have three grandkids. A $400 book grant is given in Lindsey’s honor each year at Wellsville High School.
“That is some of the good that came out of this,” said Rick. He can point to the seat where she sat as salutatorian during graduation days now while serving on stage as a board member and participating in commencements.
Those wanting to help sustain Lindsey’s memory can do so throughout the year. Due to COVID, pasta dinner and Chinese auctions used previously were discontinued. The only toy donations the hospital can accept are direct shipments from stores or vendors. The hospital has a webpage dedicated to Lindsey to allow those interested to donate.
To donate the hospital has set up this website:
Donations and gift cards can also be sent directly to:
Kathi Exler, Children’s Hospital/Lindsey’s Christmas , 4401 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15224
Lindsey’s dad wrote a stirring and heartfelt tribute at her funeral. It was called “One More Hurdle”:
“The dictionary defines courage as the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear. I think Lindsey understood this more than anyone I have ever known. Her whole life she faced hurdle after hurdle, and each time arose to the occasion. Her first track coach, Mr. Davis, always told her as she tried running hurdles for the first time to always think of the journey down the track simply as “just one more hurdle.
“Lindsey lived her life with this same attitude and determination. I remember the day she first learned she had cancer almost two years ago. She did not cry, she did not pout, she showed no fear. She simply asked, “What do we do next?” She was ready to face that next hurdle. Initially it was thought she may lose her leg with this surgery but just 60 hours after her surgery she was up walking down the hall and up and down stairs with her brace. She was instantly ready to go over the next hurdle.
“When we got the devastating news after her radiation and physical therapy about the spread of her disease to her lungs, she looked at the journey to New York more as a vacation than the beginning of an even longer and painful journey. Every new treatment, every blood transfusion, every surgery, everything they asked her to do to fight this cancer she did without showing fear.
“She simply took each new setback and attacked it as if it simply was one more hurdle. As the reality that her race with cancer was coming to an end, Lindsey still showed courage beyond what seems to be humanly possible. I think she was at peace and was ready to cross the greatest hurdle of her life as she went from her world of pain to her finish line as she crossed the gates into heaven.
“It is often said that at the end of a rainbow is a treasure waiting for you. But as we all know, to get to that rainbow we much endure the storm. Lindsey’s storm is now over and she is now rejoicing with the greatest treasure we can ever imagine.
“Lindsey you are my hero, my little girl, and I love you. I will miss you each and every day until the time comes that I cross my last hurdle and find you waiting for me at the finish line.
October 27, 1985 – March 13, 2007
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