The cheerleader makes the best out of what she has to keep her life intact 

After weekend football games, junior nursing major Savannah Mitchell usually runs to her apartment to change out of her cheerleading gear, grab a bag of clean clothes and then drives for about an hour and a half to get to San Diego to take care of her father. 

Mitchell’s dad was diagnosed with multiple system atrophy (MSA), a progressive neurodegenerative disorder in 2011, which has slowly taken over his body. He has retained some movement in his arms and can wiggle his toes, but needs help with getting around in his wheelchair. 

His condition is rare, and affects his body’s involuntary functions like his blood pressure, breathing, bladder function and muscle control. There can be many complications as the disorder progresses and it becomes more difficult for him to do daily activities. Anything, even a mild fever, can negatively affect his health. 

Mitchell’s life has changed since her father was diagnosed with MSA. It’s been a challenge and a huge adjustment to her day to day life, but she doesn’t look back at what could have been. She never takes life or time for granted, especially since her father’s diagnosis. 

“Before I transfered to APU, I was his primary caretaker and I would take him to the grocery store, his doctor appointments,” Mitchell said. “We were hanging out all the time, this wasn’t like a job, but it came very natural of doing those things anyways.” 


The Mitchell Family

During the COVID-19 crisis, Mitchell and her family have been unable to see their dad in person due to the fragility of his condition. 

He is currently being taken care of in isolation at a nursing home, but his family still manages to see him a couple of times a week. His bed is right next to a window where Mitchell and her family are able to say hello through the glass. They write signs saying “I love you” and scream outside the window so he is able to hear them.

Throughout her childhood, Mitchell and her father were inseparable. Mitchell’s family, which consists of her mom and dad — who have been married for more than 25 years — older sister, younger brother and a golden retriever named Luna, used to bond over group activities and family traditions. 

Because of their strong family bond, Mitchell doesn’t see herself as her father’s caretaker when it comes to helping him. She was there when he needed to get to his doctor appointments, handle situations with the hospitals and deal with any conflicts that got in the way of his well-being. 

Nicholas Edwin Christilaw Jr., Mitchell’s boyfriend of four years, has been there for the Mitchell family for as long as they have dated. When Mitchell is at school, he goes to the hospital or the nursing home to check on her father. There have been emergencies where Mitchell couldn’t make it to the hospital right away, and Christilaw was there to lend a hand. 

“Savannah is the type of person to always put a smile on your face,” Christilaw said. “She is so sweet, loving and empathetic to everyone.” 

Over the time that they have been together, Christilaw has learned a lot from Mitchell and has big plans for their relationship in the future.

“Savannah has given me life-changing experiences and has given me the perspective to give value in my everyday life,” Christilaw said. “No matter what you go through, be thankful for what you have in front of you.” 


Life at APU 

Mitchell is currently working towards becoming a nurse in the future.

“With my dad being sick, I know that God has called me into nursing … this is what I [am] meant to do,” Mitchell said.

At times, it has been difficult for Mitchell to overcome setbacks, such as when she had to skip a semester of school last year to take care of her father. However, she has always managed to come back. 

Amidst the struggle, she has made many memories at APU and was even able to join the cheer team. For Mitchell, the compassion that APU’s close-knit community provides has helped her to continue being a helping hand for her family. 

Former APU cheer coach Hannah Price said that Mitchell’s charisma has made a large impact on the cheer team and on herself. 

“Savannah has taught me the importance of kindness,” Price said. “I have never heard Savannah speak poorly about anyone. She puts others first and is such an encouraging force to APU Cheer.” 

Price explained that her gentleness can at times be misinterpreted as shyness or her being unapproachable, but that is far from Mitchell’s true nature. No matter where Mitchell’s career will take her, Price said she will continue to impact lives and be a positive light in any environment. 

Mitchell’s desire to work hard and get things done without the help of others can be seen as intimidating. She’ll use her free time to go to a coffee shop, alone, to get study time in so that she can pass her rigorous nursing exams. 

But if anything, her devotion towards putting her father’s needs above her own can attest to the strength of her character, and how much her family truly means to her.