Throughout her yearlong battle with brain cancer, friends described Elizabeth Gao ’15 as strong, positive and hopeful. Tomorrow, a team of friends will run in her memory at the American Cancer Society Relay for Life.
Jessia Hoffman ’15, a freshman dormmate and fellow singer in the a cappella group Mixed Company, created the Relay for Life team “Inspired by Elizabeth,” which had raised $3,900 for the American Cancer Society at time of publication.
“I was having a really hard time with the fact that Elizabeth was gone,” Hoffman said. “The only way to start to heal is by doing something proactive.”
Caroline Zhang ’15, Gao’s Delta Delta Delta sorority sister and close friend, urged not only participation in the 24-hour walking relay but also reflection on cancer’s ability to touch the heart of a community.
“I hope people can come out and, if people knew her, then remember her, and, if not, then they can get to know her,” Zhang said. “She was just a very beautiful, inspiring person, and she has a great story.”
When Gao arrived on the Farm as a freshman in 2011, she immediately made an impression on her peers with an upbeat attitude and easy smile.
“She’s just like a light,” Zhang recalled. “When you’re around her, you just want to smile. We joke that she just can’t close her lips. She’s always smiling.”
She drew people in effortlessly, continuing to be positive even after she was diagnosed with cancer.
“She was so strong, and she was always just so positive about everything,” said Patricia Costacurta ’13, Gao’s peer health educator in Trancos last year. “You couldn’t know Elizabeth without loving her.”
Her battle began in February 2012, when she had her first seizure the day of Mixed Company’s annual performance. When Gao returned to Trancos, Mixed Company welcomed her back with a surprise performance.
“She was like taking a shower, and she got out, and we started singing to her, and she started crying,” Hoffman said. “We all started crying — it was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.”
The reunion was short lived. Weeks into spring quarter, Gao experienced another seizure and was diagnosed with brain cancer. She took a leave of absence for treatment, while continuing to occasionally visit Trancos.
Throughout the summer, Gao continued her fight. Hoffman, who visited her for the last time in the fall of 2012, remarked on how chemotherapy had taken a toll on both her body and her spirit.
“Just a few months before, [Gao] had been this really vivacious, huge presence,” Hoffman said. “It was almost like this disease had condensed her spirit and squelched it a little bit. That was so hard to see.”
Jamie Kim ’15, another friend and dormmate, said that seeing Gao as she went through treatment was particularly difficult.
“I had kind of trained myself to kind of see it coming, but still,” Kim said. “Seeing her condition deteriorate and seeing her in a wheelchair, I couldn’t even look at her without crying.”
When Gao passed away on March 6, 2013, the news hit her friends and the Trancos community hard.
“It was just inconceivable,” Hoffman said. “I just started sobbing and I … yelled at the world.”
On May 8, a memorial service for Gao was conducted at Memorial Church, with speakers including her friends Zhang and Kim. Gao’s friends and family, some of whom had come from as far away as the East Coast, were present, and tears fell freely when Mixed Company performed.
For Hoffman, creating Gao’s Relay for Life team has helped her grieve personally while bringing community members together to fundraise for a good cause and celebrate Gao’s life together.
“I hope people are able to walk with their friends [tomorrow] and share memories about their loved ones like Elizabeth,” she said.