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The last 10 months have been pretty hard for Courtney “Coco” Johnson.
The 15-year-old Californian — who lives in Pasadena with brother Parker, dad Kelly, and mom April Danz — was diagnosed with cancer in June, the day after her eighth grade graduation ceremony. She’d been having leg pain for a week or so, and tests soon showed she had a Ewing sarcoma, a kind of tumor low in her left femur.
Since then, she’s had to have two surgeries and more than a dozen chemotherapy sessions that required her to stay in the hospital for days on end. She missed her first year of high school and instead studied at home, where her family has been wearing masks to avoid getting her sicker.
“There was a lot of time that I just wasn’t feeling well for many days at a time,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Danz, her mother, said Coco has been resilient throughout.
“She really didn’t let it get her down,” Danz said. “We’ve had some low moments, but she never felt sorry for herself. She hung in there and did it with a smile on her face.”
On Tuesday, the teen completed her final chemotherapy session and got to leave Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) for the final time.
Normally, the last session is a pretty big deal at CHLA, and kids get to ring a bell amid a celebration with lots of well-wishers. But due to the coronavirus outbreak, the hospital is only allowing patients to have one visitor at a time. (Coco will also have to keep up strict isolation at home until her immune system improves in six months in order to avoid catching the deadly virus.)
So, as she left the hospital Tuesday amid the pandemic, Coco had to make do with just her immediate family and some staff seeing her off — or so she thought.
Feeling bad that her daughter was missing out on a celebration, Danz had vented to her friend, Sonia Singla, days before. “I just felt like she’s gone through this whole thing and we’ve been talking about having a party,” Danz said. “I felt so bad for her.”
Singla then came up with the idea of a “reverse parade,” where a few of Coco’s loved ones would drive to their street, sit in their cars, and wave as she arrived home.
“I thought, Ok, that’s kind of lame or whatever, but fine,” Danz confessed.
Well, more than a few people showed up.
When the family car turned the corner to their street and Danz started recording on her cellphone, expecting to see just a few people, there were in fact dozens and dozens of friends and supporters of Coco. Unbeknownst to her, Singla had texted a bunch of people, who had in turn texted a bunch more. Each group was in their cars — maintaining social distancing — but many had brought signs, posters, streamers, and balloons to celebrate Coco’s milestone.
“When we turned the corner, it was very emotional for all of us,” Danz said.
Danz’s video captured Coco sobbing with joy as she waved to the people who had been lifting her spirits and supporting her family these past 10 months.
“I was just completely overwhelmed,” Coco said. “I wasn’t expecting anything, and I was just so surprised and grateful that everyone showed up to celebrate me.”
“It really hit me at that moment that everyone was there for me,” she said.
The moment was also emotional for Danz. Many of those who turned up had been cooking meals or otherwise assisting the family during Coco’s treatment period. Weeks before, they’d made hundreds of hats reading “Team Coco: Nobody Fights Alone” and posted them on social media. And now here they were once again.
“We’ve been pretty stoic for, honestly, 10 months and it was just the biggest emotional release to have her ring that bell and then turn the corner and see all these people who’ve been there for us,” she said.
Family friend, the actor Matthew Lillard, was among those present and tweeted the footage Wednesday.
But the video really took off when Danz shared it in response to a callout on Twitter from The Office star John Krasinski for some good news stories amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The video has since been seen more than 2.7 million times and has attracted the attention of a bunch of famous people, including Krasinski himself.
“All the thousands of comments are so nice,” said Coco. “I’ve been reading all of them.”
Danz said she knows why her video has gone viral: “I think it struck a chord in the country right now because people are needing to lean on others and get to know their neighbors,” she said.
Coco said she hopes people watching the video amid the coronavirus pandemic and lockdowns remember that they, too, have a community.
“It’s important to stick together and support each other in this hard time,” she said.
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David Mack is a deputy director of breaking news for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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