Poppy has gone from strength to strength since our holiday. It really was the best medicine for all of us. Each day, I keep thinking she’s better than ever and certainly the most well since late March. Tonight actually marks three months exactly since that 111 call to NHS Direct became an escalating series of events which lead to an admission to hospital and a middle of the night conversation with a doctor about Poppy’s blood results. Leukaemia was mentioned for the first time. At that point, it seemed completely implausible and a very worst case scenario which I thought we would never reach.
I didn’t know much about Leukaemia then. But I thought I knew enough to know that our well girl, sitting up colouring and chatting with her sister, did not have anything near as serious as cancer. I overheard the doctor (who is now Poppy’s consultant) say something similar at the nurse’s station, yet those results still niggled at her and her gut instinct told her to keep us in for further tests. Maybe another doctor would have done the same thing. Maybe Poppy’s blood results were clear enough that no-one else would have sent us home either. I’ll never know the answers to those questions, but I do know I am mighty glad that she was there that night and kept us in. So many stories of cancer and particularly childhood cancer, revolve around numerous dismissive trips to the doctors seeking second opinions as the presenting symptoms can so easily be something far more innocuous. Whilst it was a whirlwind week, I’m thankful that we got the answers we needed to start Poppy’s treatment so quickly.
I still recall some of the names and faces of the other babies, toddlers and parents in the Paediatric Assessment Unit that night. Seeing their poorly little ones whilst Poppy played, feeling certain that we were there as a precaution. The other children looked far sicker than Poppy, and yet one by one they were gradually sent home. Finally, we were the last to remain along with another little girl who was also admitted. I saw her weary parents the next day, though not again after that and I sincerely hope she was the precautionary tale we expected Poppy to be.
I think the first point at which I realised things were serious, was when the blood transfusion first banded around as a possibility became a certainty, along with the knowledge that we would be moving along the corridor to the room opposite the nurses station. A clear signal to me that Poppy was indeed unwell and needed to be closely monitored. I also clearly remember being told that we would be transferred to Bristol for the bone marrow aspirate and asking Graham what he thought that meant. His answer? They don’t tend to do lumbar punctures on children for no reason.
As we arrived in Bristol, my mind was still churning with the possibilities we were facing. On Tuesday morning, I thought we were dealing with a case of Leukaemia or not. Though throughout the day, as we gleaned more information, it quickly became apparent to me, that we had passed the point of being sent home with a clean bill of health. Poppy had something, the question now was: what did she have?
Some hints from the medical team and some research of our own suggested three clear possibilities:
2. Aplastic Anaemia
3. A virus
I mistakenly took a virus to mean something straightforward, a common childhood illness to be treated with antibiotics or the like. It was only in conversation with the consultant in Bristol a few short hours before the bone marrow aspirate took place, that I understood the options properly. In a sense, a virus was actually the worst outcome – they were talking about the possibility of a rare, mystery virus which would potentially be difficult to treat. Secondly, I heard the word Anaemia and assumed the common sort, treated with iron tablets. Again, I was mistaken. Aplastic Anaemia is a lifelong condition where your body doesn’t produce enough new blood cells. Having personally boxed those two options as undesirable, I came to the mind blowing realisation that at that point, I was actually hoping that Poppy had Leukaemia. I went to bed that night cradling Poppy in my arms, with the feeling in the pit of my stomach that Leuakemia was the best possible outcome we were left with.
Even having come to that realisation on my own, didn’t prepare me for the moment when we were told for certain that Poppy had Leukaemia. The morning of results day is a complete blur, I have no idea how we spent those hours until the consultant and the specialist nurse came into our room. Poppy was eating her lunch at the time. You may recall she hadn’t eaten much in a week and we were overjoyed at seeing her tuck in after the trauma of the nil by mouth situation the previous day. The hospital has a protected mealtime policy, meaning that patients are encouraged to eat without any medical direction taking place during key meal times. I was steadfast in my belief that this was important and should be valued, and politely asked the two medical colleagues to return when Poppy had finished eating. Looking back on that moment now, I think I knew what they were going to say. I think I needed those precious few moments to ready myself for what was to come. Not that I thought about it at all in those five minutes before everything changed. Poppy was my sole focus, watching her carefully chew each mouthful of her beans on toast until she declared she was finished and I returned to the nurses station to collect the waiting medical team.
There’s no easy way to tell someone their daughter has Leukaemia, and I’m glad the consultant didn’t string anything out. We were told in simple terms that the bone marrow aspirate results had showed that Poppy had Leukaemia. It was treatable but with a long process of treatment. I had no idea how long at that point. That blow was delivered later that day in a two hour conversation with the same two people, having given us several hours to let the initial shock absorb. I recorded that conversation on my phone and have just listened to the first five minutes of it for the first time. It’s a strange feeling to recall those first moments when we tried to understand what we were dealing with. We’re concentrating so hard on every word, interjecting with regular questions to try to gather as much information as possible. All the while, I can hear my voice whispering quietly to Poppy as she sat on my lap on the hospital bed, pointing out pandas and bunny rabbits in the book we were reading. The ultimate in multi-tasking, desperately trying to understand the most important conversation of my life so far, whilst simultaneously reading the words of another story. At some stage, Poppy fell asleep. I can’t remember how far in, but I do know it was a relief to know she was resting and I could concentrate on just one thing.
I’ve also just looked back on the whatsapp messages from the group I created to tell some of my dearest friends. They were aware we were in hospital and awaiting news, but I don’t think any of us dreamed we would be given this outcome. Proactivity kicked in really quickly, and having come out of the conversation with the specialists at around 6pm, I actually sent a further message to my friends at 10.30pm that very night, acknowledging their offers of help and support and asking if they would consider giving blood. I re-registered myself that night and made an appointment, which is looming in two weeks time. Each blood donation can save up to 3 lives, so the 17 heroes who’ve signed up for Poppy so far have potentially saved as many as 51 lives between them.
This isn’t the post I thought I was going to write tonight. I had planned a happy post about the events of the last week, but somehow my vivid memories from those early days have spilled out instead. The happy post will follow soon. Until then, I’m off to bed, dreaming of the lives being saved tonight from blood donations across the country. Our list of life-savers is growing and you can be part of it too. Do something amazing. Give blood x