acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)
Hudson entered the world on March 31, 2017. This is the day my heart left my own chest and was beating outside of my body. My whole world was immediately consumed by this little, perfect bundle of cuteness. As far as cancer risk goes, he didn’t really have any. He had a healthy infancy and toddlerhood, barely needing a Band-Aid. This is the case for so many children. In November of 2018, Hudson became a big brother to Violet. I can remember being in the studio for Violet’s newborn photos when the photographer had Hudson lay beside Violet. She showed me the photo on her camera, and instead of telling her how adorable they looked and how amazing the photos were, the sentence that bluntly came out of my mouth was, “Hudson looks sick.” She instantly acted surprised and. of course, reassured me how adorable they both looked together. I brushed it off at the time, but I kept thinking his eyes looked puffy, not himself. A mother knows.
In February of 2019, I was playing with Hudson in the toy room when I noticed some purple spots on his arm called petechiae. Fortunately, I work in medicine and knew exactly what they were. I also knew what they could be caused by ― leukemia. Over the next couple of weeks, the petechiae disappeared, but I noticed some dark circles under his eyes that stood out as strange to me. I also noticed some change in his appetite, but what almost-two-year-old doesn’t have constantly changing eating habits? I monitored his temperature for a few nights, and sure enough, he had low-grade fevers. I knew in my soul Hudson had cancer. I took Hudson to our pediatrician and told them I wanted a CBC blood test to check for leukemia. After his blood was drawn, I felt an instant sense of relief. About an hour later, our lives changed.
I was holding Violet when my phone rang. It was our nurse practitioner. She asked if I was sitting down and if I was holding Violet. I knew in my core what was coming next. “Hudson’s labs are abnormal.” The next 20 minutes were such a blur. I started hysterically blurting out partial sentences that mostly consisted of “Hudson can’t die!” or “He’s going to die! My baby is going to die, isn’t he?” Our NP told me Hudson’s lab values. She told me to pack some bags and immediately go to the 11th floor of the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. I asked what floor was the 11th. It’s the pediatric hematology/oncology floor. Hearing the word oncology made it that much more real. I got off the phone and immediately called my husband Kyle. All I could do was scream at him that Hudson was dying and had cancer and that he needed to get home immediately.
We were swarmed with nurses and residents. In the midst of all the chaos, we consented for Hudson to receive blood products. I never thought I would ever have to consent for my child to have a blood transfusion. I am so grateful there was blood on the shelves when he needed it because that night, he needed a lot of blood product. A nurse actually told us recently that she remembers the night Hudson came in. She remembers our nurse spending the whole night having to do transfusions to stabilize him. He received three blood transfusions and one platelet transfusion. Without blood donors, he wouldn’t have survived. A bone marrow biopsy and lumbar puncture were performed. I was sitting in the corner chair, holding my sweet Violet. She was not even 10 weeks old. Dr. Terry kneeled down in front of me. He looked me in the eye with the most sympathetic face and told me it looked like Hudson does have cancer and that it appears to be acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He had no risk factors and no known cause. This is, unfortunately, the case for childhood cancer victims. Unlike many adult cancers that are due to poor lifestyle choices, most of the time the cause is unknown for pediatric cancer patients. Unfortunately, they had a possible leukemia cell in his spinal fluid. This changed his protocol a bit. The following day we met Hudson’s oncologist, the phenomenal Dr. Dickens. And so, his treatment began.
Hudson is now in the maintenance phase of his protocol and will continue in this phase until May of 2022. To get to this phase, he had to survive induction, consolidation, interim maintenance I, delayed intensification, and interim maintenance II. During induction, Hudson was on a month of high-dose steroids. This completely changed him. He stopped walking, and talking, and lost his entire personality. We were convinced he was gone forever. A nurse practitioner on our team stopped me during one of our visits and said, “He’s just not your little boy. But he is in there, he will be back, I promise.” It was true. He did start to return, but it was a very difficult time. He had to relearn to walk because he was in so much pain and had so much weakness from his medications. He refused the medications because they tasted terrible. This led to the start of his NG tubes. Shortly after induction was over, I went upstairs to get Hudson out of his crib. I saw my husband frantically pulling out his pillows and bedding. When I looked down, I instantly realized what he was doing. Hudson’s beautiful hair was falling out. Never should a parent have to experience that. I would go to kiss his sweet head, and his hair would stick to my lips. I would notice it on my hand when I went to rub his head or his shoulders after he was done playing. Over the course of the next few months, Hudson had multiple inpatient stays for fevers, low blood counts, dehydration, or medication refusal. We are in the maintenance phase now, but it’s no walk in the park. It’s more of a nightmare rollercoaster that we can’t get off of.
Childhood cancer is a thief. It’s stolen the life we had envisioned before cancer, experiences, and memories we could have had with our children, our son’s health, and moments we missed with Violet. Violet was essentially raised in a hospital. Instead of friends or family seeing her milestones, it was the nurses on the 11th floor experiencing them with us and cheering her on. One thing we have realized is that there is something so much grander than all the side effects, traumatic experiences, pain, fear, and chemotherapy drugs, and that’s the love we have for our child.
Despite everything Hudson has endured, my husband and I still consider ourselves fortunate. Most have a hard time believing that. Until you see what we have seen, you won’t fully understand. We have seen families being admitted to our floor, and the parents leaving without their child earthside. We see these mourning parents having to take out their belongings, the room being left empty, and the nurses trying to carry on with their shift. Even though Hudson is walking through hell, he is still with us. Still fighting. Still alive. We’re still able to kiss him, snuggle him, touch his soft beautiful hair, read bedtime stories, and play together. We are grateful to watch him be the most amazing big brother to Violet. Even when he is feeling sick or in pain, he still has the sweetest personality and loves his sister. Violet, who is only 3 years old, has taken on the role of his caregiver during his rough treatment weeks. We are truly honored to be their parents and to see their love and compassion for another human in their weakest moments. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) was discussed during our first week of diagnosis and has continued to be a resource for our family. They're giving our children hope by being the largest funder of research, helping implement policies supporting blood cancer, and advocating for childhood cancer warriors like Hudson.