Courage In The Face Of Empending Death
The summer prior to my entering high school and a few months before my 16th Birthday went from exciting to frightening in a heartbeat. My little sister Terri Anne was 8 yrs old, full of piss and vinegar, running around the neighborhood, teasing her older brothers and appeared to be the picture of health. Our mom noticed that one side of her face was swollen, there were no bite marks for a insect, nor snakes ( we had garden snakes in our garden ), somewhat concerned she called the doctor. An appointment was made and off they went. She was examined, they couldn't find an indication for the cause of the swelling. Blood was drawn and they were sent home.
The next few days were anything but normal, in fact, normal ceased to exist from the moment on. Mom received a call from the doctors and they had to bring Terri to the hospital to be admitted immediately, the doctor would meet them there and explain everything then. Everyone was on pins and needles, no knowing what was wrong and waiting to find out took what seemed like an eternity. My parents returned home while Terri was being transferred to Children's Hospital in Boston, Ma. This became their home away from home for quite a few years.
My parents explained that Terri had leukemia, a blood borne cancer. They had information given to them by the teams of doctors that we in charge of the Oncology Pediatric Unit @ Children's Boston. They explained that Leukemia is a cancer of the blood that attacks a person's bone marrow. Since then I've done quite a bit of research. When you're healthy your bone marrow produces white blood cells that help fight infection, red blood cells that carries oxygen to all parts of your body and the platelets help the blood clot. In Terri's case the bone marrow is producing abnormal white blood cells, these are the leukemia cells. These grow in faster than normal cells and don't stop when they should.
Symptoms may vary depending on what form of leukemia you have. These are the more common.
- Fever and night sweats
- Bruising or bleeding easily.
- Bone or joint pain
- A swollen or painful belly from an enlarged spleen
- Swollen lymph nodes in the armpit, neck, or groin.
- Getting a lot of infections.
- Feeling very tired or weak.
- Lack of appetite and weight loss
Terri however didn't have any of those symptoms, just the swelling in her cheek. We are fortunate that my mom noticed it when she did. It gave Terri an advantage over the other children in the ward. Sadly, all children she met and formed friendships with passed away within the 1st year of being diagnosed. As I mentioned, the symptoms vary depending on what type of leukemia you have. Terri had acute lympoblastic leukemia.
Terri was hospitalized from August until Christmas Eve, which was such a gift for our parents and us kids. However this was only a mini vacation for her. She basically was hospitalized from 8 years old until for longs stretches of time while undergoing a combination of chemo and radiation. They talked of giving her a bone marrow transplant and we were all tested to see who was a match. Our brother Thom was to be her donor. However the radiation damaged her liver and they weren't able to perform the transplant.
Terri went into remission from time to time and in fact, in 1984 their was a huge party to celebrate her being in remission 5 years. That celebration was short lived when it was discovered the leukemia had returned in a different form. The form of leukemia she had was common in children, the leukemia that was found in 1984 was more common in adults is, Acute Myelogenous leukemia. She was hospitalized and a new round of chemo began, she spend periods of time between the hospital and home. They tried different forms of chemo though nothing seemed to be working. The standard chemo medications weren't working the way they had hoped.
The teams of doctors made a decision and made arrangements for my parents and Terri to go to The Maryland Cancer Institute. Families, Aunts and Uncles, brothers and sister, from all over the United States were there looking for a cure for their loved ones. They had rooms set up for family to stay while the children and young adults were there for treatment. They all pitched and supported each other. They had special dinners, costume parties, anything they could think of to make the stay as normal as possible.
This continued for another two to three years. The drugs being used were all experimental, which means the standard chemo and or radiation was a no win for them as well. The families became very close. They joined together creating a little family, all fighting for the greater good of their children. Praying that the miracle drug would be found. Some days were better than others, for the patients dealing with the side effects wasn't pleasant, for the parents who's hearts broke each time they son or daughter were dealing with the chemo aftermath.
In 1989 the doctor's were no closer to finding a drug or combination of drugs that would make a different in Terri's fight against the leukemia. They were up to doing more treatments, gave my parents and Terri the prognosis gave them time to digest what they had just been told. Yes Terri said, I can stay and keep getting the treatments but I am tired of being sick. I want to stop all treatment and enjoy whatever time I have left, I want to be home with my family.
And come home she did! She went out as much as possible. Went with our brother Stevie to a local pub where they had karaoke. Terri would put Stevie and his friends in to sing a song without them knowing of course. And sing they did! They even won a few of the contests from time to time. Terri was enjoying life and not looking back. She was only looking ahead. I marveled at her outlook, how she felt blessed to have this time with her family and friends. Her last Christmas with us she had me take her shopping so she could by all the nieces and nephews Christmas presents just in case.
Her courage in the face of death intrigued me. I don't know that I could be that brave. She planned a special family dinner and everyone HAD to be there or she'd take care of them!! She bought tee shirts for all the nieces and nephews, craft crayons, iron on decals and colored them each their own special shirt. All the sisters and sister in laws got a long stemmed rose, all the boys and our brother in law were given a trinket. I can't for the life of me remember what it was. The had special gifts for our parents and her Godparents. She told me she had a feeling this would be the last big meal she had with everyone here and sadly she was right.
She planned her own funeral, picked out her casket, bought the outfit she wanted to be buried in, chose what music she wanted played during her wake, at the funeral mass and at the cemetery chapel. Talk about courage. I'm sitting here with tears rolling down my face, loving and missing my baby sister. And still in awe of her bravery.
The last six months we all visited quite often, we'd play cards or just sit at the kitchen counter and talk, tell jokes and laugh. Quite a few times we would get Chinese food from her favorite place, China Maximum, they made the best vegetable lo mien. Terri got me hooked on that stuff. In fact, up until the week before she passed away we sat at the counter playing cards. I came to visit a few times that next week and had planned on coming over that weekend. Well I was there that weekend. In fact I left work on Friday after getting a call from my mom that the time was getting closer and asking me to come home. The hospice nurse who was a heaven send to my family and especially took wonderful care of Terri, told my mom to call everyone, Terri breathing had changed which wasn't a good sign. Two of my brothers lived out of town so they made flight arrangements, everyone else was there within an hour. I went home to grab clothes and make arrangements with my friend LeeAnn to watch my girls until who knew when. She was my heaven send knowing I didn't have to worry about them, at least not yet. I knew my daughter Jessica would take her passing hard because she was her Godmother and they had a very special bond.
The remainder of the weekend I stayed at my folks house, we pretty much all did. This was the baby of the family. We had already lost our oldest brother Ricky in August of 1981 and now we were losing the baby. My parents were being so supportive of each other and us kids as well. Terri said one day that she was happy to be going because she would see Ricky, our grandparents Hannigan, Memere' Deroises, Aunty Helen, all those who had passed before her. We all decided that two of us would sit with her in shifts through the night. Her only fear about passing away was being alone and we all promised her we wouldn't let that happen. At midnight on that Saturday my brother Eddie and I pulled chairs up to the hospital bed, each took her and were getting settled. Our mom was just going to bed and she came over to tell Terri goodnight and I love you. Eddie said, it's you mom, she's worried about leaving you, let her know that you will be okay, we'll all take care of you. That's what mom did, taking the hand that I was holding and let her know it was okay for her to go, that she would be okay, Terri opened her eyes, tried to say something and was gone.
There were quite a few tears shed that night, for our loss and tears that we were grateful her battle was over, she would no longer be in pain and finally be at peace, she was with Ricky now.