We began the year with the birth of our second daughter, Zoe Elise, and very quickly it took a turn for the worse. When Zoe was nearly 2 months old, our toddler brought home a nasty virus from pre-school, and it made it’s way through our family until finally, after holding out for a week, Zoe started congestion and a mild fever.
Within a few days the fever began to be noticeably persistent and other warning signs began to appear, and through a back and forth with our Pediatrician, who insisted, we took her to the hospital. What began was our nearly year long ordeal with HLH. It took several weeks to bring the disease under control, but thankfully she was able to be diagnosed incredibly early, which we now know probably saved her life. The longer HLH goes undiagnosed, even a matter of weeks, can result in damage to the body that is hard to recover from.
Zoe had her early treatment at Wake Forest University Hospital and then was released for a brief window as she was prepared for her lifesaving Stem Cell transplant to replace her malfunctioning immune system with that of another child via umbilical cord blood stem cells.
Over the summer she endured a preconditioning regimen of chemotherapy to destroy her existing immune system, received her transplant, and spent the waning days of summer in a hospital bed being fed through a tube on a pain management system.
By the fall she was released, doing well so far, and we began our stay in Durham where we were required to stay close to Duke University Hospital for her constant clinical visits. After a time there, just as Winter was ready to begin, we were released to go home.
Everything about this process has gone as well as it could for us I believe, given the possibilities. We are lucky. Extraordinarily lucky. There are families who I follow regularly now who continue to endure aspects of this experience, with HLH and similar disorders, as their children literally fight for life. My heart goes out to them every time I check in. I’ve teared up many nights as I read an update online, posted at 1 or 2am, knowing what it’s like to be sleepless and helpless in that hospital room with a child struggling nearby and machines beeping all night, like the tap tap tapping of a raven. It is one of the many, many, “secret” diseases that families endure when struck by them, but which the greater public is largely unaware of.
By now, we are beginning to see what life might be like next year, a year that we have high hopes for. We are looking forward to our older daughter, who has grown up so very much this year, returning to school, which she can’t yet because of the risk of disease. Just this morning over breakfast she said “we’re all back together again Daddy”, which she says often now that we are. She had her own hardships this year, we know. Hopefully they’ll give her character, and she is certainly deeply attached to her sister already.
Zoe for her part won’t remember much of this, but she will have lingering effects, a sort of PTSD. She is already very nervous when men she doesn’t know (in particular) lean in toward her, she panics and start crying in a clear response to the doctors who she must have learned to fear. People in white coats tend to set her off when they enter a room. It’s heartbreaking. But, she is alive. She is getting healthy. She is growing. We are grateful.
This Christmas is special for all sorts of reasons, but it will be memorable for us as a turning point in our lives as a family. Among our gifts this year was a special one I wanted to share.
Maya’s Great Uncle Charles took particular interest in how she was doing this year, he seemed to see that she might be having a hard year being taken out of school, transported all around and kept from a normal childhood routine as we worked through Zoe’s disease.
He commissioned a wonderful doll house for her(and for Zoe when she is older) from a local crafts person, which we received on Tuesday just before Christmas. Maya was ecstatic, as were we — it is really an amazing gift and will certainly be an heirloom. I wanted to post a little video we shot of it and the person who made it explaining it to her by way of thanks. We, and (more importantly) she, will treasure it.
With regard to Zoe’s medical particulars, let me offer a quick update on that front. Her WBC counts have climbed a little more, she is now holding at 8.1. Her last was closer to 6, and she seems to be holding in the low normal range now. Her Creatinine, Bilirubin, Sodium, RBC, Platelets — all are normal.
The GVHD rash she had recently has passed, and though she immediately plumped her cheeks back up in response to the steroids she had to restart, we are relieved that it went away without major consequence. We’re weaning her off of the steroid again even now. Her Tacrolimus level had been low recently, perhaps in response to her metabolic changes while growing and getting more physical, and we suspect that is a contributor to the rash.
With regard to her physical development, she is moving right along. She started crawling within a week of my last post, and she’s already beginning to cruise a bit (moving along things while standing). The night before she started crawling in full, when we could see she was close, Michelle, Maya and I all started doing laps around the den on our hands and knees in a big circle around Zoe. We like to think we inspired her 🙂
Her strength has really improved and she’s into absolutely everything she can find, as she should be. Her sister follows her around the house excitedly and loves to have her nearby when playing. Zoe is in the 50th percentile range for both weight and height.
I’d like to wish all of you a Merry Christmas or Happy Holiday. We have really loved getting to speak to so many new people and meet wonderful families this year, despite all of the hardships. Your support in comments and advice both privately and publicly has been a boon to us, and we thank you.