At one point during the first day of Vanessa Pacella's very first World Series of Poker, she was nearly out before it came time to eat dinner. She suffered what poker players call a "cooler." It means all the people in the hand have every reason to think their hand is the best. She lost a huge part of her stack and looked doomed to bust out early.
It was not the worst thing that happened to her that day.
As we reported that day, Pacella, a player suffering from Stage 4 breast cancer, was here with Nicole Rowe. Pacella had held up Rowe during her own battle with breast cancer. Grateful, Rowe bought Pacella into the WSOP Main Event. Rowe was eliminated early that same day.
It was not the worst thing that happened to her that day, either.
Pacella managed to win back all her chips and then double them to make it Day 2. She rushed back to her hotel room to share the story with Rowe.
"When I got back to the room, it was 12:30," Pacella said. "By one o'clock, I was on the phone with 911 asking for an ambulance."
Rowe was wracked with fever. Within hours, she was in the hospital diagnosed with walking pneumonia and other serious complications from her cancer treatments. She remains in that hospital bed in Vegas today, and there is nothing Pacella can do about it. She can't even visit. Her body is weak with cancer. She can't afford to get even a cold.
"I'm nervous, but I can't go to the hospital because I can't get sick," she said.
And so this morning, Pacella stood alone in the Rio hallway waiting to play Day 2. It had only been 48 hours since Rowe showed Pacella around. Now Pacella was looking for her table. She had to go play poker, but her mind was on her friend.
"I just want her to come back, be here, and enjoy it," Pacella said.
Rowe and Pacella had two missions here at the WSOP: get the word out about mammograms to detect breast cancer and--just maybe--win $10 million in the WSOP. The cancer outreach went well.
"I definitely feel like the women are getting the word," Pacella said.
The poker part was harder.
"It was a little intimidating. There's so many professionals," she said.
Nevertheless, Pacella isn't new to the game. Her grandmother taught her the game when she was eight years old. They still play together today.
"She's alive and well and still makes me take her to play poker all the time," Pacella said.
Professionals and big money pressure aside, Pacella did what she has been doing for the past several years. She tapped her reserve of courage and ingenuity and made it to Day 2 with a stack any poker player would envy.
"I think there's an advantage to being a woman because--no offense to the male species--I think most men underestimate women, especially in their ability to play cards," she said.
So, now, Pacella sits behind her chips. She'd played with no hair on Day 1. Today, she wears Rowe's pink wig, a symbol of strength shared by two women who have been through hell and are still battling every day.
Pacella thought back to that moment on Day 1 when she was nearly bust. And then she thought about how she fought back. Then she thought about her friend Nicole.
Pacella smiled and tilted her chin toward the ceiling.
"It's just like life," she said. "You have to keep fighting and have a good attitude."