To look at Addie Puskar today is to see the picture of health. At 22 years old, she’s a college athlete who oozes endurance on the pitch. You’d never guess that as a child, she was in a hospital bed with tubes in her arm and a cancer diagnosis.
The only evidence of that now is faint scars on her upper right arm, where those tubes were inserted. But Puskar, a graduate student and starting defender on the women’s soccer team at William & Mary, is a survivor.
She doesn’t recall much about that time, and what she does are mostly fun moments. Like the nurses being so nice and riding her tricycle down the hospital hallway. The chemotherapy, the spinal taps, the infections, the heart scare … she knows they happened, but only because she’s been told.
“I don’t have very vivid memories of it, which I’m probably thankful for,” said Puskar, who graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and is working on her master’s degree in business analytics. “But from a young age, I’ve always realized what a big thing I went through. And what my family also went through.
“Talking to my parents and my two siblings and hearing their memories of that time shows me how heavy everything was. That puts it in perspective more than my 2-year-old memory lets me remember.”
Her parents, of course, remember every last detail. Charles “Chip” Esten and Patty Hanson Puskar, both Class of 1987, became alarmed when their 2½-year old daughter turned pale and developed tiny spots on her skin called petechiae, which indicate bleeding.
That led to a frightening conclusion: acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“When we were kids, leukemia was a virtual death sentence,” Esten said. “By the time Addie was diagnosed, there was an 85% survival race. But, of course, that 15% is massive in your ears and imagination.”
Puskar spent six weeks in the Cedars-Sinai Cancer Center in Los Angeles. That included 10 worrisome days in Pediatric Intensive Care with a heart infection. Her parents did their best to not only keep Puskar’s spirits up but to reassure their older children, Taylor and Chase, who were then 6 and almost 4.
“We worked hard at maintaining the magic of childhood in that very sterile setting,” Esten said. “That’s why I brought the tricycle that day, to see the funny, silly goofiness of riding a tricycle down a hospital hallway.
“And Patty would bring doll figurines, Disney Princesses, Winnie the Pooh, and set them up. This was pre-iPad, you have to remember.”
Puskar underwent chemotherapy for 21 months. She had constant blood tests — every month for the first year, then every three months, then every six months, and then once a year. The summer before her fifth birthday, she finished treatments.
She wasn’t out of the woods yet, but she was getting there.
“The number they gave us then was 10 years of being event-free,” her mom said. “But we didn’t have a party. She was getting to live her life, play sports and do all the things her brother and sister were doing. That was the party.”
Puskar was a healthy, bright, soccer-loving 12-year-old when that milestone was met.
“My whole family, and extended family, and friends made the best out of a really hard situation,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the support and for making it the experience it was.”
Puskar’s parents met at William & Mary, where both majored in economics and her mom doubled with honors in English. Esten comes from a long line of W&M alumni, which includes his parents, sister, aunt, uncle and cousin.
Patty Puskar was an Army brat who came to Williamsburg from Naples, Italy. She became interested in William & Mary by filling out a college survey after taking the PSAT. Moving into Barrett Hall was easy because her luggage got lost on the way over.
As a freshman, Esten was part of a group of friends who formed a life-long bond. He and a soccer player named Marsha Fishburne ’87 were especially close. These days, her last name is Lycan, and she is the Tribe’s associate head coach.
“That still blows my mind,” Esten said. “My mother says things like that aren’t coincidences but God-incidences.”
For the first 13 years of her life, Puskar grew up in the Los Angeles area. Going by Charles Esten (Esten is his middle name), her dad had found fame as an actor, musician and improv comic. He had recurring appearances on “The Office,” “E.R.” and “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”
In 2012, he became a regular in the T.V. show “Nashville.” Currently, he plays the evil Ward Cameron in the Netflix series “Outer Banks.”
During his “Nashville” stint, filmed on location, the family moved to nearby Brentwood. Puskar played four years on her high school team and was twice named all-state. Her club team, Tennessee Soccer Club 99 Showcase, won the national championship in 2017.
John Daly was W&M’s head coach at the time, and he watched the championship game on television.
“I liked what I saw, and she came to our camp,” he said. “She was really whole-hearted. She gave everything when she was at camp, and it went from there.”
Puskar committed to William & Mary in August of 2017, and that season turned out to be the last of Daly’s legendary 31-year career. He was replaced by Julie Shackford ’88, a former player of Daly’s, and Puskar officially signed with W&M in February of 2018.
She couldn’t wait to tell her nurses from Cedars-Sinai. They had stayed in touch over the years as Puskar’s health kept improving. Each encouraging story was shared, and this was a big one.
“That was a fun little Christmas card to write,” she said. “I’d never be here without all the good work they did.”
Puskar has played 52 games in her W&M career, 27 of which she started.
“Of all the kids I’ve coached over the last 30 years, she’s one of the top-five most coachable,” Shackford said. “When she wasn’t getting a lot of playing time, she’d come into the office all the time looking for feedback and ways to get better.
“She came out every day for extra coaching and playing and has worked her way into arguably one of the best outside backs in the league. And she’s a wonderful teammate.”
Lycan can’t help but marvel at how far Puskar has come.
“The fact that she’s playing on a Division I team after what she went through when she was 2 years old,” she said, “that’s pretty amazing.”
Puskar is a survivor. But her work isn’t done.
Since 2013, she and her family have been involved with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual Light the Night Walk. Over the last nine years, “Team Addie” has raised $1.7 million. There are several events across the country with the nearest being in the Richmond area.
“It all goes into research and helping patients with the quality of life and families with paying the bills,” Puskar said.
Each walker receives an illuminated lantern with different colors. Those who have lost someone to cancer carry a gold one. Those who are supporting someone carry red. And those who are survivors, like Puskar, carry white.
“For Addie to be carrying a white one,” Esten said, “we’re a very, very long way from where we had been.”
No one would ever guess.