By Jason Schneider
Learning your child has cancer is one of the most difficult things any parent can endure. Earlier this year, Michele and Billy Woods received the news that their 5-year-old son, Noah, has acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).
“Being told your child has cancer is something I find very hard to describe. It truly shakes the foundation of who you are and can test you beyond belief,” said Michele.
In January, his parents took Noah to his pediatrician because of a fever. “He did blood work and referred us to Mission,” said Michele. “We met Drs. [Douglas] Scothorn and [Krystal] Bottom at the Mission Children’s Hospital suite in the SECU Cancer Center. On that day, Noah was admitted to the hospital to run more tests to confirm the diagnosis of ALL.”
Support at Every Stage
For diagnoses such as this, Mission’s Child Life program provides support to the family. “When children are first discovered to have a diagnosis such as cancer or any type of life-threatening illness, Child Life immediately becomes involved with helping the patient and their siblings cope with and understand what is happening to their bodies and why they are having to stay in the hospital,” said Julian Cate, CCLS, Certified Child Life Specialist, Mission Children’s Hospital.
“Child Life has helped tremendously at every stage of his treatment,” said Michele, adding that Noah has had IV chemotherapy, intrathecal chemo and chemo by mouth, along with a long regiment of steroids.
“Miss Julian helped Noah understand what cancer is. [She] drew a life-size picture of Noah and had Noah draw black circles in the picture. She then had Noah fill empty syringes with paint and he was able to squirt the black circles. She explained the black circles was his cancer and the paint was the chemo medicine that will get rid of the cancer,” Michele said. “Noah still refers to his cancer as the ‘black spots’ in his blood and has his ‘artwork’ hanging in his playroom at home.”
Dealing with the New “Normal”
Noah has handled his treatment like a champ. “Kids are incredible,” said Michele. “It is unreal to watch how well he has learned to accept that the doctor visits and procedures are now part of the ‘normal’ for him. He still gets very anxious when his port is being accessed, and he does not grasp how long this treatment is going to last. Physically, he tries to be as normal as possible, although he gets tired and will voluntarily lie down to take a nap.”
And he’s kept his sense of humor, too. “Noah likes to bring in toys when he comes, and scare the staff with them,” said Melanie Clark, RN, nursing supervisor of the pediatric hematology/oncology outpatient clinic at SECU Cancer Center. “His favorites are rubber snakes and spiders. I do not like spiders, and Noah has figured that out very quickly. The other day, while I was working with him, he very quietly placed a rubber spider on my shoulder and made me jump. He laughed and giggled for several minutes about the fact that he ‘got me.’ Being able to bring a smile to Noah’s face and hear him laugh are the most rewarding times of all!”
Clark agrees that the Child Life program has helped Noah tremendously. “They have helped him to realize that the clinic is not a scary place, but rather a place where he comes and receives the help and medications he needs to get better,” she said.
“The Child Life program is all about collaborating with the medical team to help the patients and their families cope to the best of their ability with the stressors of a healthcare crisis,” said Cate. “I believe that between Noah’s inpatient experience and his many outpatient clinic appointments, the Child Life team has been able to maximize his coping and minimize his stress surrounding a very life-changing event in his world.”
Noah’s parents feel fortunate to be supported by so many friends and family members. “Above all, our faith has gotten us past the dark times. We have learned to take one day at a time and to find the blessings hidden in the hardship,” said Michele. “We feel very blessed to be at Mission and have found a ‘family’ who treat us as if they were treating their own. Everyone involved in Noah’s care has been wonderful and we could not ask to have been treated any better.”
Julian Cate, CCLS, is a Certified Child Life Specialist at Mission Children’s Hospital. Melanie Clark, RN, is nursing supervisor of the pediatric hematology/oncology outpatient clinic at SECU Cancer Center at Mission Health.