Through a nightmare: Family deals with ultimate scare

The Howarth family is among those receiving support and care for a child with cancer at B.C. Children's Hospital.



by Diane Strandberg, Black Press

“How did this happen?”

The question on Andrea Howarth’s blog cuts like a knife. One day the Port Coquitlam mom and her husband, Nick, are planning a trip to Disneyland with their two children – Clara, now six, and Brennan, who just turned four – and a few months later, they are plunged into a nightmare from which they are still recovering.

As she doles out cupcakes for a treat to her little ones in her comfortable condo, it’s hard to believe the story Howarth is about to tell, yet, according to statistics, it’s a sadly common tale for hundreds of B.C. families.

Last February, Clara was struck down by a serious fever that turned out to be Strep A. Later, as the little girl’s body fought the illness, her blood work revealed an even stronger adversary: lymphoblastic leukemia.

“It was very scary,” Howarth recalls. Flipping through a binder that logs Clara’s test results, prescriptions and hospital stays, she describes how Clara, then a kindergarten student at Blakeburn elementary, came home from her Sparks meeting with a headache. That turned into flu-like symptoms and a fever of 40 C.

“She couldn’t hold anything down,” Howarth said, and with a mother’s instinct, she and husband Nick decided to make the trek to BC Children’s Hospital on Oak Street in Vancouver for some expert advice.

They made the right decision.

“We bypassed the lineup and were admitted into emergency right away,” she said.

In the hospital’s intensive care unit, Clara was given round-the-clock care by nurses and doctors who specialize in dealing with children and who patiently answered the Howarths’ litany of questions.

It took several days for the eventual, shocking diagnosis, but by then, anxiety and exhaustion had begun to take its toll.

The couple fell asleep together in the tiny cot pushed up against Clara’s bed.

“It was so tight, there was just no room,” Howarth said. A curtain divider hung in her face but discomfort was a small price to pay to be near their little girl, who was fighting for her life.

Thankfully, they had great support from the staff at BCCH, and their close-knit family, friends and colleagues. Howarth’s parents even cut short a cruise to be with their daughter and Nick, a police officer, was able to get time off work.

The diagnosis, when it came about eight days after Clara was admitted, was hard to take.

“We were just devastated,” said Howarth.

With leukemia confirmed through bone marrow testing, the family exchanged one cramped room in ICU to another in the oncology ward and Clara began chemotherapy treatments.

She started to get better and the Howarths began to look around and see other families going through the same ordeal.

Childhood cancer is surprisingly common, with approximately 850 Canadian children expected to develop cancer this year – 100 of them newly diagnosed in B.C. All of the British Columbia cases will end up at BC Children’s, where staff are experienced in dealing with the special needs of children and research is being conducted into new therapies.

After several weeks of treatment, Clara returned home in the spring and, although extremely weak and with the trademark hair loss, finished kindergarten and is now back at school in Grade 1.

Her cancer is in remission, although she still has to receive treatments that are extremely hard on her body. The long-planned trip to Disneyland that would have taken place this fall was cancelled but Howarth is thankful her daughter is doing so well.

In fact, she has become a BC Children’s Hospital booster and is supportive of a $200-million capital campaign to replace the aging facilities with a new hospital that will be much more comfortable for families and more efficient for staff.

Recently, she toured a mock-up of the new design and can’t say enough about it. Plans call for larger rooms, the consolidation of oncology services on one floor instead of three, as they are now, dedicated lounge areas and larger shared facilities, including a kitchen.

The improvements will be a benefit, she agrees, but for now, being home with her children every day and seeing Clara’s health improve is all Howarth really needs.

That trip to Disneyland can wait.


by Jeff Nagel, Black Press

Kids fighting cancer will be among the prime beneficiaries of plans to rebuild BC Children’s Hospital starting in 2014.

The $683-million project will roughly double the amount of space in the hospital and it will also reconfigure the pediatric oncology department, now inconveniently spread out over three floors, onto one much more efficient level.

“It will provide much greater continuity of care,” said Stephen Forgacs, spokesman for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation.

The foundation is helping support the new hospital – to open in 2018 – with a $200-million fundraising campaign and Forgacs said the new design is centred around the needs of families.

“We’re building exclusively private rooms in the new hospital,” Forgacs said. “There will be no more open ward.”

Those private rooms will have their own bathrooms, fold-out beds and wardrobes to accommodate parents who want to stay overnight with their sick, frightened kid.

Also planned are kitchen facilities for families, office space for parents needing to keep up with work duties and wifi access everywhere.

“In any hospital room you’ll be able to get online, which is great for parents who are away from work,” Forgacs said, adding it also helps kids beat boredom with video games and connect online with friends.

Besides improving privacy and infection control, there are advantages to letting parents stay in a private room.

They can comfort their child and they know so much about treatment protocols, they’re essentially experts who help back up staff.

Medical technology has evolved by leaps and bounds since BC Children’s Hospital opened in 1982, when personal computers were a novelty.

Diagnostic scanning is light years ahead and minimally invasive medical procedures allow much more use of day surgery rather than overnight stays.

The new hospital will be much better designed with all technology needs in mind.

Demand has also soared over the years and not just due to B.C.’s growing population.

Kids whose conditions meant a death sentence in the 1980s are surviving in much greater numbers – the pediatric cancer survival rate is up to 80 per cent from 20 then.

And others who once died young from chronic conditions like cystic fibrosis now routinely live into their 40s.

It all means a hospital that was at capacity the day it opened 30 years ago is now bursting at the seams.

Forgacs said myriad improvements will make the new hospital more welcoming and comforting to families enduring the worst and most terrifying moments of their lives.

It’s critical to meet those emotional needs – not just the medical ones.

“The stress families feel is intense,” he said, adding hospital staff feel it too.

“Not only are you dealing with a child who is ill, you are dealing with parents of that child who would literally give their lives if they could to save the child.”

Forgacs said the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation has raised $155 million over the past four years toward its $200-million target through tremendous grassroots support as well as support from major donors.

High-profile donations have come from Vancouver Canucks Daniel and Henrik Sedin and singer Michael Bublé.

The biggest contributions have been $25 million from Teck Resources and $20 million from the Overwaitea Food Group.

Just as honourable, Forgacs said, is the support from parents whose kids have been through the hospital but who perhaps can afford only to volunteer or simply share their stories.

“They look for ways to express their gratitude,” Forgacs said.

“For many of them I think it’s almost therapeutic to remain involved with the hospital.”

Forgacs said the foundation is now hoping more donors will step forward to raise the remaining $45 million.


• 100 to 150 children diagnosed with cancer annually in B.C.

• 800 in active cancer treatment at any time

• 80 per cent survival rate, up from 20 per cent 25 years ago

• In 2011, 8,969 children and teens visited the oncology/hematology and bone marrow transplant clinics at BCCH.

For more about the BC Children’s Hospital visit

Just Posted

The theme for this year’s Fraser Valley Regional Library Summer Reading Club is “Crack the Case” and Katie Burns, community librarian at the Chilliwack Library, is encouraging people of all ages to sign up. She is seen here at the Chilliwack Library on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Crack the case, read, win prizes with FVRL Summer Reading Club

‘Immerse yourself in other worlds and have a bit of fun while you do it,’ says Chilliwack librarian

A police pursuit involving Abbotsford Police ended in Langley Saturday night, June 20. (Black Press Media file)
Abbotsford Police pursuit ends in Langley with guns drawn

One person arrested, witnesses say an officer may have been hurt in collision with suspect vehicle

Cpl. Scott MacLeod and Police Service Dog Jago. Jago was killed in the line of duty on Thursday, June 17. (RCMP)
Abbotsford police, RCMP grieve 4-year-old service dog killed in line of duty

Jago killed by armed suspect during ‘high-risk’ incident in Alberta

Kalyn Head, seen here on June 4, 2021, will be running 100 kilometres for her “birthday marathon” fundraiser on July 23. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Woman’s 100-km birthday marathon from Chilliwack to Abbotsford will benefit Special Olympics B.C.

Kalyn Head hopes run raises awareness, advocates for inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities

Dancers from the Sts’ailes First Nation perform the eagle dance at a welcome banner dedication ceremony on Thursday, June 10. “Ey Swayel” is a Halq̓eméylem term translated as ‘a good day.’ (Adam Louis/Observer)
VIDEO: ‘A good day’ for Agassiz school as Sts’ailes welcome banner is dedicated

Banner hangs above the school’s entrance, welcoming students, staff and visitors

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

Pedestrian hit by police vehicle in Langley

Injuries described as serious, requiring surgery

Barbara Violo, pharmacist and owner of The Junction Chemist Pharmacy, draws up a dose behind vials of both Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines on the counter, in Toronto, Friday, June 18, 2021. An independent vaccine tracker website founded by a University of Saskatchewan student says just over 20 per cent of eligible Canadians — those 12 years old and above — are now fully vaccinated. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
At least 20% of eligible Canadians fully vaccinated, 75% with one dose: data

Earlier projections for reopening at this milestone didn’t include Delta variant

This undated file photo provided by Ernie Carswell & Partners shows the home featured in the opening and closing scenes of The Brady Bunch in Los Angeles. Do you know the occupation of Mike Brady, the father in this show about a blended family? (Anthony Barcelo/Ernie Carswell & Partners via AP, File)
QUIZ: A celebration of dad on Father’s Day

How much do you know about famous fathers?

Emily Steele holds up a collage of her son, 16-year-old Elijah-Iain Beauregard who was stabbed and killed in June 2019, outside of Kelowna Law Courts on June 18. (Aaron Hemens/Capital News)
Kelowna woman who fatally stabbed teen facing up to 1.5 years of jail time

Her jail sentence would be followed by an additional one to 1.5 years of supervision

The George Road wildfire near Lytton, B.C., has grown to 250 hectares. (BC Wildfire Service)
B.C. drone sighting halts helicopters fighting 250 hectares of wildfire

‘If a drone collides with firefighting aircraft the consequences could be deadly,’ says BC Wildfire Service

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read