Our 3-year-old son Wes is a typical kid. He loves dinosaurs, racing his toy cars and eating noodles. We weren’t too concerned when our pediatrician suggested blood work after I reported that Wes had swollen lymph nodes. What were the odds it was something serious? Our world turned upside down when she called the next day holding back tears. “His white blood counts are extremely high and it points to leukemia,” she said. “Pack a bag and go straight to Children’s National Hospital.”
Within 24 hours, doctors in the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders confirmed Wes had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. His white blood cells were crowding out his red blood cells. There was only one thing going through our minds: Our little boy had to be OK.
Dr. Anne Angiolillo, our primary oncologist, stopped by Wes’ room that first night. She drew illustrations to explain his cancer in lay terms and explained the treatment. She also prepared us for how Wes would feel during and after chemotherapy. He had his first platelet transfusion that night. Day 2 included surgery to install his port, an artificial vein to administer chemo.
Children’s National became our home for the next month. At times, the hospital seemed eerily quiet because of COVID-19 restrictions. Visits from Child Life Specialists, often carrying armloads of donated toys, got us through long days and treatments. A music therapist named Michael visited with a tambourine, xylophone and egg shakers. Art therapists stopped by to paint and color. Everyone encouraged Wes to stay active. He raced a ride-on scooter down the hallways. Nurses brought toy dinosaurs for after-hours scavenger hunts by flashlight.
The nurses also made treatments less scary by letting Wes help ― he squirted syringes of medicine into his own mouth and pressed down the syringe to flush his port with saline. When doctors came by for daily rounds, Wes held the stethoscope while they listened.
The nurses and doctors reassured us, too. Dr. Angiolillo, a leading expert in this kind of cancer, always made sure we understood the complicated science of leukemia. This, along with her immense compassion, brought us a great deal of comfort. Her own clinical research had a direct impact on Wes’ course of treatment: for certain therapies, he needed fewer infusions. The weight of what Wes had to endure overwhelmed my husband, Jason, and me at times. The team always supported us and encouraged us to take care of ourselves, including the baby I was carrying at 6 months pregnant.
On day 32, Wes’ team cleared him to go home. Nursing staff lined the halls and cheered as we left the unit. That moment meant everything, even though the journey was far from over. He still goes back for chemo treatments and weekly check-ups. Children’s National specializes in taking care of families going through difficult times. They helped us find strength and joy in the face of the unimaginable.
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