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.

Clara

Clara

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.

NEW HOSPITAL A BOON FOR KIDS WITH CANCER

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.

BY  THE  NUMBERS

• 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 http://www.bcchildrens.ca

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