By: Tammy Andrews
Here in the latter days of the Christmas season, most parents are scrambling around in full panic mode trying to finish up their Christmas list while most children are impatiently counting down the days in anticipation of the arrival of Santa Claus. For most people, this would be your average traditional behavior just a few days before Christmas Eve. But in a hospital bed at Children’s Hospital one faithful yet terrified mother, Amy Mitchell and a seriously ill daughter, Emma of Oxford, AL would give anything to experience this type of normalcy.
On Friday, December 20, Emma underwent her third brain surgery to remove yet another tumor at the tender age of 5. Emma was your average little girl until the age of 3, a bright-eyed little beauty full of energy who reveled in the warmth, love, and comfort of her familiar surroundings. Sadly, these brief days of ‘normal’ are now bittersweet times she cannot even recall at such a young age. Is this a blessing or a curse for sweet Emma? Maybe a little of both, because she has been sick for so long now, the endurance of hospitals, needles, and pain are all that she knows. Yet what she has conquered to date is one of the most inspirational stories you will ever hear.
Emma’s life began to change in June 2012 when she was just three years old and she was treated for an ear infection at an after-hours clinic in Oxford. She was sent home with antibiotics, which is standard protocol for an ear infection in toddlers. However, her condition would not improve. In fact it would worsen throughout the course of the following week, and Emma would return to the doctor two more times that same week. On her third visit of that week, her doctor said she had become dehydrated from vomiting and
gave her fluids which suppressed the symptoms somewhat, but Emma would still not get any better.
After watching their daughter lay around lifelessly for the next couple of days, Amy’s parents made the decision to take her to Children’s Hospital in Birmingham. After examining Emma, they were once again told their daughter was only suffering from dehydration. They too, just wanted to give her fluids and send her back home. But knowing her energetic little daughter too well, Amy knew there was more to this picture. These fearful parents stood their ground until another doctor was called in and tests were ran to find the underlying problem.
A CT scan revealed a lemon-sized tumor on Emma’s brain with a great deal of swelling around it. Emma was admitted in ICU and underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor the very next day. The prognosis wasn’t good at all. The Mitchells were told Emma might not live through the surgery and if she did survive, she would most likely lose mobility of her left side where the tumor was located. Reeling at the rapid turn of events, Emma’s parents tried to prepare themselves for the worst. They prayed hard
for a miracle and their faith would not let them down.
Amazingly, Emma came through the surgery with no complications and the doctors told the Mitchells they were 99.9% certain they had been able to remove the entire tumor. Within 48 hours of her surgery, Emma was back at home and would not have to undergo any type of physical therapy. Within two weeks, it was as if she nothing had ever happened, other than the scar on her head. Doctors were baffled at her recovery, yet elated.
Even with the physician’s certainty, Emma still was scheduled to undergo six weeks of radiation as a precautionary measure, but would not make it to the end of these scheduled treatments before a reoccurrence would take place.
When Emma began to complain of a headache just four short weeks later, Amy took her back to Children’s and further tests would reveal the worst. The tumor was not only back, but it was bigger than the first one that had been removed. The doctors were in shock, stating they had never seen a tumor return so quickly at such a massive growth. Emma would spend her fourth birthday in the hospital.
Emma’s course of treatment was changed completely where her regular radiation therapy program was cut short with the new developments and was changed to aggressive radiation treatments that caused Emma’s beautiful mane of hair to fall out in just two short days.
In the beginning, the thought of Emma losing her hair was very important to Amy. “I couldn’t bear the thought of my little girl losing her hair, but I think God went ahead and allowed this to happen just I could get past this to show me that this was not the most important thing there was.” said Amy.
The next six weeks involved daily trips to UAB for radiation and chemo treatments, with a series of short hospital stays along the way whenever Emma would experience fevers, be given platelets and blood transfusions, or any complications with the feeding tube that had to be inserted.
Emma’s Christmas was celebrated a week early, so she would have time to enjoy her toys before she went back into the hospital for a long stay.
On Dec. 26, 2012 Emma entered into the ICU Stem Cell Unit where she was given three big rounds of chemo with stem cell transplants. In a typical stem cell transplant for cancer very high doses of chemo are used, often along with radiation therapy, to try to destroy all the cancer cells. This treatment also kills the stem cells in the bone marrow. Soon after treatment, stem cells are given to replace those that were destroyed. These stem cells are given into a vein, much like a blood transfusion. Over time they settle in the bone marrow and begin to grow and make healthy blood cells.
The next few weeks were very lonely for both Emma and Amy because during this time you are in complete isolation from even immediate family members. But unfortunately sometimes in life, you don’t always get to make choices.
One of the hardest things about this time for Amy was being away from Emma’s sister, her 14 year old daughter Kaitlyn, who was in the care of Amy’s mother while Amy stayed with her youngest daughter. “It’s really hard sometimes, leaving Kaitlyn because I know she needs me too, and no mother should ever have to make this decision. But with Emma is where I need to be and Kaitlyn knows this. She misses us both. She and Emma are very close, so this is hard on all of us.”
In April 2013, they left the Stem Cell unit with another good report from the doctors. Although the tumor was still present, it was thought to be nothing more than dead tissue. Emma and Amy were so glad to finally return to their home.
Emma was finally able to make good on that promise to do a lemonade stand fundraiser for the stem cell clinic that she had talked to her mother about during their stay there. This event started out small and grew to be very large. Emma’s stand raised almost $2000 that day, and all proceeds went back to the clinic. One customer, Jim Lehmann, who followed Emma’s progress on Facebook drove all the way from Huntsville just to meet Emma, have a cup of lemonade with her and also made a very large donation. He was completely taken with her and an instant friendship was born.
In May 2013, Emma was given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Make-A-Wish Foundation was sending Emma and her family on Walt Disney World. She wasn’t feeling very well, her body had gone through so much. She was nauseous and still swollen from the steroids, but overall she had a wonderful time.
Although there were still regular trips to the doctor, Emma and her family enjoyed the summer and hoped their lives would return to normal. Amy began making plans to return to her classroom at Munford Elementary where she was employed as a Kindergarten teacher. However, tragedy would strike again.
On August 16 2013, Emma had been playing when Amy noticed she had no use of her left side. She was rushed back to Children’s where doctors soon discovered the tumor was back. After an MRI confirmed it, Emma once again underwent brain surgery to remove the tumor. During the surgery, doctors found not just one, but three tumors; one from the dead tissue tumor they were aware of and one believed to be caused by radiation. However, it was the discovery of the third one that concerned them the most; a PNET tumor.
PNET tumors contain underdeveloped brain cells, are highly malignant, and tend to spread throughout the central nervous system. These tumors often contain areas of dead tumor cells (necrosis) and cysts. Fluid surrounding the tumor is not uncommon. PNETs occur primarily in the cerebrum, but can spread to other parts of the brain and spine. Because they tend to be large tumors, symptoms of increased pressure in the brain and mass effect are often present. Seizures are common.
All tumors were removed and a biopsy of the PNET Tumor was sent off to be analyzed . The results were not good. Cancer had reared its ugly head again.
Emma had to undergo two big rounds of chemo. The first round went smoothly and consisted of split time with chemo distributed at home and during hospital stays.
Faith and Friends
During these most trying times, Amy clung to her strong faith in God to help her through. Each morning, she would put on a brave face for her daughter which wasn’t always an easy task. Because inside, she was just like any other scared mother, who hurt when her baby hurt and fought to keep her feelings under control.
Some days she would break under the pressure and cry in the presence of the very one she was trying to be brave for. Times like these consisted of a reversal of roles, when her child who seemed to be wise beyond her years would look at her and quietly say “Dry It up Mommy” or “Mommy, please stop crying, I’m going to be okay”. This beloved creature was truly a Godsend.
The second round of chemo came with complications. Emma began having seizures, some lasting for 20-40 minutes at a time. Doctors at first thought she might be having an adverse reaction to the strong chemo. However, the problem turned out to be a brain bleed which was much more serious than they had anticipated. Emma was placed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, where she was unconscious for a week. When she finally regained consciousness, Emma had to undergo physical therapy to regain control of her motor skills again.
In times of need, Amy was overwhelmed with the support of her hometown, friends and family, and even complete strangers reached out to Emma in ways that she could never imagine. Team Emma was created held several fundraisers which has helped with travel and lodging expenses to date. There was such a large outcry on Emma’s behalf during this time that Amy could not even name how many nice things were done in Emma’s honor.
For instance, Emma wanted to become a midget cheerleader at the beginning of the school year. However when she missed tryouts, they made her an honorary member of the Munford Cheerleader squad. And although she wasn’t strong enough to make it but to one of the games, she still got to ride in the parade. Emma had a blast!
Another lady heard about Emma’s story and knew how badly she wanted a puppy. So, she got Emma a Maltese puppy, which was perfect for her because these dogs do not shed and are hypoallergenic, but they need to be kept indoors and this was going to be difficult task due to restrictions on Emma with her course of treatment.
Hearing this, another friend, Paula came to the rescue . Paula and her husband, along with his friends, employees of Coosa Valley Electric, raised money for a playhouse/doghouse for Emma and her puppy. They even went to Tennessee to pick the playhouse up and renovated it themselves. The end result was a beautiful pink princess playhouse complete with heating and air conditioning so the dog would live in it because at the time the stipulations of the ongoing stem cell were very restricted. Emma was absolutely thrilled!
Over Thanksgiving, Jim, the generous lemonade stand friend, extended Emma’s family all to a Christmas tree lighting in Huntsville. He was requesting Emma’s help in the decorating the tree in her honor. He paid for the family to stay at a hotel the entire weekend and continues to stay in touch with Emma. This was a very special time for Emma and a much needed getaway for the family.
Here and Now
In December 2013, the PNET tumor once removed had grown back in the exact same spot. This tumor is pressing on the motor cortex of her brain. All chemo has been cancelled and a new doctor has joined the flock with a new plan of action. This new plan consisted of a one- time dose of radiation on Thursday, the day before her surgery. This course of treatment has only been done with adults, so it is unknown how Emma will respond to it. Emma underwent a MRI of her spine at the beginning of this week to see if the cancer had spread to her spine and they were relieved to see that it had not. She is again amazing doctors with her walking and talking as if nothing has happened. With this amazing, unrelenting attitude, will Emma defy all odds once again? That’s the hope of thousands as they close their eyes in prayer for their little hero every night.
Although Emma’s story doesn’t sound to be taking a good route, it is very clear that is anyone can defy the odds, this little girl can. She has defied death several times now, and has risen above every obstacle that has crossed her path. Her courage and bravery has won the hearts of thousands of people, many who have never even met her before.
To anyone who sees her without actually knowing anything about Emma, all they see is a sick little girl, with no hair and swollen from the steroids. But for those who are fortunate to know her, they see a captivating little warrior, who melts their heart with her genuine smile and her courageous attitude that has impacted their lives like no other. A little girl who loves her family and friends and mostly God, will give you the shirt off her back, and just like any other little girl, she wants to play with her princesses, baby dolls, and her Barbies.
Because this has been a way of life for Emma, she knows nothing more than being sick but she also knows exactly what she is up against. Even though there are times she is in tremendous pain, Emma never complains, unless it is that she wants to go home. She is very caring and thoughtful of others. At times, you will find her sharing her snacks with others, and making things for her friends and family. She is especially thoughtful of those who are caught up in the same cancer journey as she is. She has made several friends at Children’s who have lost their battle with cancer which has been very hard on her.
The biggest thing bothering Emma right now is that she won’t be able to be home for Christmas. Last year, Emma was unable to experience a normal Christmas due to the fact that she had to be placed in isolation for the stem cell transplant she would undergo the day after Christmas. So, she was really looking forward to having a big family Christmas this year. Now, that will not be possible without a miracle, and that’s what they are banking on…
How does she do it?
Amy has had her share of heartbreak before Emma was stricken with this deadly disease. Her mother became sick and had to have heart surgery. She lost a son in 2007, who was stillborn and went through a divorce in 2008. Also in the midst of her divorce, Amy found out she was expecting again. Emma was actually a twin, but she lost one of the babies a few weeks into her pregnancy. All of these incidents used up a lot of Amy’s sick leave, so when Emma was diagnosed, she didn’t have very much built up.
Amy has been unable to work in a year and a half now. She has used up all of her sick leave but has had several of her fellow teachers graciously donate some of their days to her, for which is extremely grateful. The school board also agreed to give Amy another year off in light of Emma’s illness.
Amy doesn’t ask what the future holds for Emma, because that’s not as important to her as the here and now. Even if it sounds bad, she knows if anyone can beat this horrible disease, it is her own little sweet warrior and she has proven it time and time again. And Emma is also determined to be cancer-free.
“My faith has gotten me through this. In the beginning, I admit I questioned God, but then one day it hit me. Why not? After all, look what happened with God’s son. He died on the cross for our sins, and also endured terrible pain and suffering. I just take everything one day at a time. Every day, I have made it a habit to read a daily devotion and one day a quote jumped out at me that I cling to: ‘Keeping your faith stronger than your fears’ That has become my motto because I am human and I have my fears” says Amy.
Amy gathers a lot of strength from avid followers of Emma’s on Facebook, where sometimes it is complete strangers who lift her up by sharing Emma’s journey with others. Emma’s courage has helped many people in ways no one could have ever dreamed. One person even told her they had even been contemplating suicide when they read of Emma’s brave journey and it changed their whole outlook on life. “Everyone who comes in contact with Emma is amazed by her,” says Amy smiling “God is using Emma as a tool to touch people, and if I sat back and didn’t share her story, we might miss something along the way.”
“It’s a roller coaster ride with lots of ups and downs, and lonely times. The world just seems to keep on turning and everyone is continuing with their lives while ours has stopped,” Amy says in a cracked voice, “But we’re not ready to give up…Emma is determined to beat this and anything is possible.”
Show your support
So, this Christmas, as you sit down with your family to your holiday feast, or open your presents, please remember this precious little girl and her family in your prayers. We all know that prayer can move mountains and Christmas is the season for miracles. I can’t think of any one person who deserves it more than this special little girl, who has endured more pain and suffering in her small life than many adults have. And she’s doing it all with a smile on her face. This is a nightmare no one wants to think about, but it happens, and when it does a positive attitude can be a winning factor when all else is lost.
You can keep up with Emma’s journey by liking Team Emma’s facebook page. Those interested in making a donation to Team Emma or to just send Emma a card can do so at: Amy Mitchell 75 Jenkins Road Oxford AL 36203.
Please continue to pray for and support Emma and her whole family during this journey.