PROFILE: Wonder Woman

Published 6:00 am Friday, April 2, 2021

By SCOTT MIMS / Staff Writer

A single spherical nut wearing a textured “hat” came into view one day as Lacretia Riekeberg was looking down at the floor in the ICU of Children’s of Alabama. It wouldn’t have stood out to most people except that the previous night Lacretia had prayed for a sign. Now, all the way up on the seventh floor of the hospital sat a single acorn by the door to her 9-year-old daughter’s room. “The acorn was huge—it was huge in her journey,” Lacretia says. “She loved acorns; she would come home with acorns just with her backpack full.”

The family had not been getting good news that day, but Lacretia did some research and found that the acorn represents strength, immortality, spiritual growth and new beginnings. She then took the acorn and hung it over Destiny’s bed that day. “It meant so much more to us and our journey, and the fact that Destiny has always loved them, it was just amazing,” she says.

Sadly, a few months later on Sept. 17, 2020, Destiny succumbed to an extremely rare form of childhood cancer. A growth that had started in her liver had led to a months-long battle that changed the lives of not only her parents but also many others along the way.

Yet, Destiny’s story lives on through the hundreds of Faithbook—yes, Faithbook—posts by her parents and through all the signs and wonders that continue to punctuate and color her journey, even after her death.

“Somebody said she was like an angel that slipped out of heaven,” Lacretia says. Indeed, every part of Destiny’s story seems to come from a higher place. It is one filled with acorns, butterflies, TikToks, angels and seemingly countless other symbols of faith, hope and love in the midst of adversity.

Dustin and Lacretia Riekeberg moved to Pelham from Nashville in 2016, when Destiny was 5, and she got involved at Pelham Ridge Elementary and in the community, competing in cheerleading, dance, softball, tumbling and more. But during Christmas break 2019, Destiny awoke one day with a sharp pain in her shoulder followed by a pain in her abdomen. Four trips to the pediatrician and a CT scan revealed an enlarged liver but little else. Doctors suspected it had been appendicitis among other potential diagnoses. But after the fourth doctor’s visit, the pediatrician recommended that Destiny visit the emergency room at Children’s. Somehow, Lacretia felt that this trip would be different, so she went home to pack an overnight bag.

“On the way to the hospital while leaving the house, I looked at Destiny and how frail she was, and I said, ‘She looks like a cancer patient.’ And I said in my mind, ‘I don’t know how those parents do it,’” she recalls.

Dustin had been headed to Colorado for work but returned home because he was worried. Later that night, doctors told the family they were 99 percent sure Destiny had cancer. It turned out to be a rare liver cancer called hepatoblastoma, which, together with another form called hepatocellular carcinoma, accounts for just 1 to 2 percent of cancers in children.

“Destiny’s journey since that diagnosis has been anything but typical,” Lacretia said in a February 2020 interview, reporting that they had not left her side and literally were living with her in her hospital room.  “We’re not leaving until she does,” she said.

Shortly after Destiny was admitted to Children’s, her tumor bled and emergency surgery ensued, requiring her to remain in the pediatric ICU. Not only was she dealing with cancer, but also her kidneys were shutting down and she could not breathe on her own.

In the midst of the initial wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many people found themselves confined to their homes, the Riekebergs found a new home at Children’s. “They became our family,” Lacretia says. “We absolutely love them for what they did for Destiny. It was a very unique time to be trapped at Children’s Hospital.”

“I hate that the children have to go through what they do, but I love who goes through it (with them),” Dustin adds.

Even in the hospital, the Riekebergs said they felt like God was giving them little signs of encouragement to help along the way—signs like the acorn. But their support system on Facebook seemed to take things to another level, as people the family had never met started following Destiny’s story and sharing uplifting messages of encouragement and sometimes even their own stories of childhood cancer.

Even Patty Jenkins, a screenwriter and director of Wonder Woman, recognized the power of Destiny’s journey in a video she sent to her.

“We make movies about heroes and about people who inspire us,” Jenkins said in the video. “But you are a real life one, and you are a real life Wonder Woman. I wanted to send you a thanks from us for being that person that lights the way and inspiring us to tell stories about heroes and how brave they can be and how kind and wonderful they can be despite the struggles that they face.”

Through social media, Destiny also heard from famous makeup artist James Charles and Dodie Osteen—mother of pastor Joel Osteen—who is also a rare liver cancer survivor, as well as TikTok superstar Charlie D’Amelio, who did a sequenced dance with Destiny. Christian band Leeland called her on FaceTime and sang “Way Maker” with her.

Along the way, Lacretia started calling her Facebook friends and supporters “Faithbookers” and using the hashtag #DestinyStrong. “That has been a huge element to helping us get through,” Lacretia says. “We’ve never lost our faith. Our family has been there. We get hundreds of private messages, too, from people.”

Social media served as a kind of therapy for the family, not unlike keeping a journal.

“When I would post, it was almost a letter to myself,” says Dustin. “Lacretia was more biology-driven and I was more hope-driven. We would take doctors’ messages, which were not really good, and we took what was good out of them.”

There were days when the clouds seemed to part and let the sun through though. One of the brightest was when Destiny got to go home on April 28, 2020 when her heart rate, blood pressure and pain management had stabilized. Spirits were high as family, friends, neighbors and first responders drove by the house in a homecoming parade to greet Destiny as she looked on from the front porch. Adults and children waved and held #DestinyStrong signs, and fire trucks and patrol cars flashed their lights.

Through it all, Destiny was “wise beyond her years,” her parents said. “She said, ‘Even though cancer took away (everything I love), I get to focus my relationship on God.’ I just thought that was profound for a 9-year-old,” Lacretia recalls. “And the fact that she says that she would get cancer all over again because she knows what the kids have to go through and how they fight.”

“People think it’s all us, but no,” her dad says. “This was Destiny and God. She left a mark everywhere she went. People would just be in awe of her. We’re just so lucky that we got to be her parents. She’s just amazing.”

That same faith was visible in Dustin and Lacretia too, as they helped their daughter celebrate every little milestone along the way—a better blood pressure reading, an improved heart rate, pain management. Her dad even got to paint her nails one last time the evening before she passed. Dustin says his goal is the same whether Destiny is in her earthly body or not—“to be the absolute best.”

“I think the part that stimulates me is knowing how competitive she was,” he says. “It’s kind of like a new fuel—diesel fuel. It’s going to burn brighter, motivate me harder to go on.”

While the family was not able to change the final chapter of Destiny’s story, Dustin believes that they were able to delay the inevitable by as much as six to seven months through sheer faith, determination and positivity. And it had begun with foreshadowing too. Before Destiny’s diagnosis, she and a friend made up a story about a little girl who had cancer.

“It’s almost like I don’t know if God was preparing her for this journey, but I find that particularly interesting,” Lacretia says.

Indeed, Destiny had looked cancer straight in the face and showed no fear. To Dustin she was “relentless” with her compassion, even praying for the child next to her in the hospital.

But along with all those memories comes grief for the family—which takes breaks but never goes away. Every morning Lacretia wakes up and realizes Destiny is not there.

“It’s a hurt that just aches every day. You wake up and just wish you could go back to sleep,” she says. “It’s kind of like the worst breakup you could ever have.”

But on certain days, seemingly out of nowhere, the Riekebergs find little signs of Destiny’s presence. A yellow butterfly—a creature Destiny loved—will flutter right by them at moments when they need a little encouragement or a sign she is OK. Destiny even wrote a story about a blue butterfly, and Dustin found a big, blue butterfly made of paper while cleaning out Lacretia’s car.

People had told the couple that if they saw lights flickering shortly after Destiny’s passing, it meant that she was nearby in spirit. And then it happened when they were at Dustin’s sister’s house.

“Lights don’t flicker in her house, and it just went nuts,” Lacretia says. “At 12:15 and 12:30, the lights just went crazy. It’s all so new, and we definitely believe in it.”

Even the time of Destiny’s passing, 7:07 p.m., was taken as a sign as, according to some spiritual beliefs, the 707 angel is said to bring spiritual enlightenment. The Riekebergs have taken comfort in that, and in their dogs, Purdy, a Frenchie, and Prissy, an English bulldog—both of whom Destiny loved.