I have held the hands of many mothers experiencing grief and despair for their child. As a Trauma Surgical ICU nurse for 8 years, the patients that stood out with me were often teenagers and young adults. Typically any trauma patient older than 12 is sent to the adult ICU. The high school football player that didn’t survive the traumatic brain injury. The 16 year old whom only been driving two weeks and lost control of the car and never celebrated another birthday. The 19 year old that suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident on the way home from a mission trip… it was 9 days before she woke up and beat the odds. The suicide attempts, motorcycle wrecks… I could go on. I connected well with the parents of these young patients. They were young enough to be relatable personally and their love and dedication for their children inspired me as a parent.
About two years ago I had to reach into the strength and hope I had witnessed as a nurse when my eldest daughter, Stella, was diagnosed with cancer. She was 5. Ganglioneuroblastoma, ever heard of it? Me either. An estimated 5 in 1 million cases are diagnosed each year. One morning I had a child with a fever, that evening we were being admitted to the St. Jude affiliate in Tulsa at St. Francis hospital for additional scans for a stomach mass. Horror and devastation doesn't even begin to describe what I was feeling. My knowledge and experience as a nurse was terrifying as my mind went running with what my first born baby would be experiencing in the coming months. Her mass was in her abdomen and adhered to her abdominal aorta, inferior vena cava, right kidney and spinal nerve sheath. March 23. 2017 was the day my husband and I handed our daughter over to the nurses and surgeons to remove the mass. The surgery took four hours. FOUR HOURS! We were so terrified with each hourly update, praying to see her as soon as possible. Nothing prepares you for seeing your baby out of surgery. Her little five year old body that still had baby fat and round cheeks now had a scar across its abdomen, a tube coming out of her nose to drain and rest her stomach and now a surgeons description of a malignant tumor encased by benign cells. Basically, a cancerous tumor had formed when she was younger and as the cells matured, they actually became benign and wrapped around the cancer cells so they couldn’t spread. He was 98% sure he removed all of the cancerous cells from her body.
Stella’s first night after surgery was awful. She was in so much pain, they were administering morphine every two hours. She would wake up and attempt to move and be paralyzed by pain and fear. I cry even today thinking about the look on her face, it was heartbreaking. Within 2 weeks she started inpatient chemotherapy every 3 days, for 3 weeks for a total of 4 treatments. She is the oldest of 3 girls. Maya was two and a half and Annika was six months old when Stella was initiating treatment. Our family life was disrupted to say the least. My husband and I often let Stella decide who she wanted to stay with her during treatment and were fortunate to have the luxury of living locally and being able to alternate. We would pack our things as if we were going on a weekend trip and only it was to have our baby injected with toxic medicine that not only killed cancer cells but also healthy cells too. Her little body tolerated the treatment fairly well but there were weeks we had to be extremely cautious with food choices and outdoor activities. Stella’s absolute favorite activity is swimming but our neighborhood pool was off limits during treatment. Her dad and I bought an inflatable water slide for the backyard so she could still enjoy playing in the water and sunshine.
We definitely tried to make the best out of a scary time in her life. She broke into tears the night we told her she would lose her hair but never shed another tear over it. My lap would be filled with strands upon strands of her hair, on the rare occasion that I was brave enough to comb it, and she would turn around and start giggling at the sight of it all. When I first noticed her hair loss, I took her to a hair stylist and let her pick what color she wanted to dye it. If it was going to fall out anyway, why not have fun with it? She picked several different colors and absolutely loved her rainbow hair until it all fell out! Stella was a fighter throughout all of her treatments and only suffered a few side effects of tummy aches and vomiting. After her last round of chemotherapy though, she contracted an intestinal infection that made her very sick and she had to be hospitalized for several days. Unfortunately it was over the 4th of July, one of her favorite holidays, but we had a big fireworks show on her first night home, so all was forgiven. A couple weeks later she developed an intestinal obstruction from scar tissue around her incision and had to be hospitalized again. My girl was in so much pain that she asked to go to the hospital. The obstruction wasn’t resolving on it’s own and she was in continuous pain so the surgeon recommended surgical intervention after 3 days of waiting. On the morning of her surgery date, she woke up feeling great! The obstruction had resolved and she no longer needed surgery! We were SO thankful!
Stella is now 7 and in the 1st grade. She was granted a wish trip to Disney World last year through the Make A Wish foundation and we had the time of our lives! If you met her today, there isn’t a single sign of what she has experienced. She’s feisty, inquisitive, smart and gorgeous. She has the most contagious giggle of anyone I know. This amazing girl has endured chemotherapy and surgery and I still require more naps than she does. Stella Marie Kinter made me a mother and I will never forget how she has made me a better woman. The strength and determination our little princess warrior has shown throughout this whole process is incredibly humbling and inspiring. Our family, friends and medical staff made those nightmarish few months tolerable with their amazing PRAYERS, love and support! We are incredibly grateful to have the chance to spend everyday with our little girl because we know that not every child's cancer journey ends the way hers did.
You never know where your strength and hope comes from until you’re faced with adversity. Live your life with an open mind and never underestimate the impact a person can have on you. Whether it be the people you work with, friends, family, or a 5 year old little girl.