On December 10, 2007 I took my then 3 year old daughter, Felicia, to Abington Hospital’s ER for an ultrasound of her stomach.
Six weeks earlier, at her 3 year checkup, doctors felt a lump and ordered an X-ray. They saw something but diagnosed it as stool and began treating her for constipation.
So naturally on December 10th, I believed what they were doing was just the ultrasound, until I overheard a nurse on the phone ask, “What kind of labs do we draw on a 3-year old with a tumor?” I immediately started freaking out in my mind but didn’t ask any questions because I didn’t want any answers.
After a ton of lab work and an extremely long AND silent ultrasound, the doctor took me out of Felicia’s room and into the hall, sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and told me my child had cancer. I was then informed that they were waiting for a room to open at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where we would be transferred by ambulance.
I was in shock; I started to zone out. I really didn’t hear much after that – it all just started to sound like a Peanuts cartoon. I remember riding in the back of the ambulance with Felicia lying on top of me. I believe it was around 11 pm when we arrived at CHOP and were taken to “The Room.” That “Room” would become our “New Home” for the next eight months.
We were greeted by a team of doctors. The first words they said to us were, “Your child has CANCER; your life will never be the same; and it affects the entire family.”
The next morning, the doctors placed a central line in Felicia and they did a biopsy. I remember that night not talking much and finding it hard to fall asleep because I just kept thinking, “This must be a bad dream” and feeling that I would soon wake up. But it wasn’t a dream, the life I had known – the one with three beautiful children with NO CANCER had ENDED. I was entering a new life that I was afraid to begin, and yet had no choice.
The following day I remember holding Felicia, both of us crying and wishing we were home. As we sat on the bed, we watched this happy bald child and her mom walking the halls. I couldn’t understand how they could be so happy and smiling. I remember wondering, “How are we ever going to be happy again?” Felicia’s doctor took my husband Bob and I out in the hallway, pulled up her X-rays on the computer, and started counting and pointing 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9… 9 tumors on her lungs.
Then she counted 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… 5 tumors on her liver and then she went to her kidneys and counted tumors on both of her kidneys. I remember my husband asking if Felicia was going to die. The doctor said she was full of cancer and, yes, there was a chance she may not make it.
Felicia was diagnosed with Stage V Wilms tumor. Our journey was about to become really intense. Her treatment was to take place over a period of nine months, beginning immediately in December and ending in August. It would include five different chemotherapy drugs, removal of her right kidney and part of her left, eleven rounds of radiation from her neck to her pelvis, followed by another month’s worth of chemotherapy.
I had no idea how we were going to make it through the day, let alone the months.
Then something strange happened; we became friends with the mom and the little bald girl that we saw smiling and walking the halls. The mom’s name was Jen and the little girl was Sara. She had a brain tumor and they were coming to the end of her treatment. She explained to us a little about her journey and what was needed to survive. The main lesson she taught my family was to live life to the fullest because no one knows what tomorrow will bring. She explained what she did to enjoy the time in the hospital. She explained how being in the hospital helped you to block out everything else and to appreciate your child. She explained how it was important to make happy memories.
We quickly learned how kind everyone was to a family after their child gets diagnosed with cancer, and the nurses were especially wonderful. One instance I remember: it was Christmas, and the doctors couldn’t control Felicia’s fever or figure out what was causing it, so we were going to be in the hospital for Christmas! I remember crying and begging God, “Please let us go home to spend Christmas with the rest of my family.”
What I found out was Christmas in a children’s hospital is such an amazing experience. The staff made all the children, not just Felicia, feel so special. The nurses treated our children like they were their own, making sure to bring a smile to each of their faces. We also spent New Year Eve in the hallway of the hospital with all our new friends which are now like family.
I am so grateful for those memories.
By Renee Frugoli, mother of 3 healthy children: Angelina age 14, and Dean and Felicia age 10