When Madeline’s pediatrician said the girl needed to immediately go to the Emergency Department, her family was stunned. What seemed like relatively minor complaints were actually the symptoms of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Near the end of first grade, Madeline, who goes by Maddie, started saying she felt pain under her armpits. “We said, ‘Oh, it’s the monkey bars,” explains her mother, Christine. “Her doctor thought she might have strained something. She’s a very active kid.”
The pain subsided, but then returned in August. September saw a new symptom: Her stomach became distended, and it stayed that way for a few days. On a Wednesday — with plans in place to attend a fall festival later in the day — they took her to her pediatrician. “He said, ‘You need to go to the hospital,’” Christine remembers, still feeling the shock of those words. “All I could think is that we were supposed to see scarecrows today, not go to a hospital.”
Enlarged liver and spleen
Instead of enjoying pumpkins and autumn colors, the family found themselves in a local Emergency Department, where doctors discovered Maddie’s liver and spleen were three times their normal size. The family was told they should go to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“It was the weekend the pope was in Philadelphia,” Christine says. “The roads were closed, but they got an ambulance to take us to CHOP.” Once there, Maddie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer, and was admitted. It was an unusual time to be at CHOP: All the extra beds were occupied by doctors and nurses sleeping at the hospital because of the pope’s visit.
Maddie, then 7, stayed at CHOP for 10 days of initial chemotherapy treatment. Once home, she began an intense regiment. She took oral chemo every day, and had chemo infusions every month and lumbar punctures every three months as an outpatient.
“We were told the treatments would go on for two-and-a-half years — at that time, that felt like a lifetime,” says Christine. It was a lot for a little girl to deal with, and there were points when Maddie felt overwhelmed. “She couldn’t stand the port” — a small disc that accesses the catheter that had been inserted into a large vein in her upper arm. “And when it was a lumbar puncture day, her anxiety would start as soon as we got in the car.”
On the positive side, Maddie needed to go to CHOP’s Emergency Department only one time because of a fever — something that can easily occur multiple times when a child has cancer.
Maddie completed her final treatment in November 2017, just days before her 10th birthday. Happy to have chemo and lumbar punctures behind her, she spends time practicing the violin and guitar, writing songs, running track, playing with her sisters and going horseback riding.
“We could not be more proud of our little warrior and her very strong and supportive sisters, 12-year-old Abby and 7-year-old Isabelle,” says Christine. “Maddie has led us through this journey with grace, strength, bravery and courage.”