Our Journey Through Cancer

The Flight of Our Lives

Within moments of receiving the devastating news, we were told there was no neurosurgeon available that night and Anthony needed to be transported to another hospital who had availability to take him. That hospital would be Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles. By the grace of God that was the closest facility equipped to be able to admit Anthony for further evaluation and determine if he needed emergency surgery to be done that night. We were told that they would have to send an ambulance from the receiving hospital over to pick up Anthony and transport him back. It’s a 35 mile distance between the hospitals and if you are familiar with Southern California traffic, especially that in Los Angeles, you will know that means it is at least a good 2 hour drive during prime traffic. This would mean that it could take about 4 hours overall from the moment they picked him up until he was taken back and arrived at CHLA. Every minute counts and makes a difference in a life threatening situation. So thankfully we were presented with the option to have him transported via helicopter. Without a doubt or even question in our minds of how much this could cost or if this would even be covered by our insurance, we signed the release form immediately and before we knew it we would be taking the flight of our lives. 

During the brief moment that we waited for CHLA’s helicopter to arrive, Ricky and I took the time to inform our immediate family members of what was going on. I can’t even begin to tell you what was said in those conversations, at least for me personally, because it all happened so fast. Those close friends and loved ones that we had been in contact with during the day letting them know we were in the Emergency Room department we were just able to respond with a brief text message to update them on the situation. We then quickly returned to Anthony’s side and let him know we would not be going back home that night. That instead he needed to be transferred to another hospital so that they could run more tests on him to see what was making him vomit. He remained completely calm (as you will notice the same has applied throughout his entire course of treatment), as we fought back the tears at his bedside. We knew we were not going home that night but we honestly had no idea when we would be able to return after that moment. 

6:50pm (Pacific Standard Time) Anthony and I boarded what would be our first helicopter ride. A dream of ours to someday experience this moment, only we would have hoped that it was under different circumstances. Still in the same hospital gown that he had been in since 9:00 that morning when we first arrived to the ED. A blood pressure cuff wrapped around his right arm and a pulse-ox on his left index finger that were both attached to a heart monitor. He was strapped to a gurney with three seat belts across his body. Two nurses to his left hand side, one monitoring his vital signs while the other one was calling in the report to the charge nurse and receiving nurse at CHLA that would resume continuation of care.

It was so loud inside the helicopter, which adds to the rush of adrenaline. Despite the fear of not knowing what would happen next, the view of Los Angeles was still amazing. Anthony and I sat there in awe taking in the skyline and city lights at night. 

We made it from Anaheim to Hollywood in 8 minutes. The helicopter is only able to carry a certain amount of weight and with it being an air ambulance they carry a lot of medical emergency equipment that adds up weight quickly. Initially I was told I may not be able to ride in the helicopter with Anthony, which was nerve wrecking to have to part with him at that time if needed. Thank God the nurse pilot said the nurses on board would leave any personal bags or equipment not needed in order to ensure that I be able to accompany Anthony. 

Luckily they did not have to leave anything behind and I was able to ride in the helicopter with Anthony. Unfortunately for his dad, Ricky, that meant that he had a long drive home from the hospital to his house and then to CHLA. I cannot imagine what that drive was like for him, sitting there in traffic alone with just time on your hands to think and take it all in. On my end, I truly had no time to think. From the moment the helicopter landed on the roof of CHLA, the next moments happened so quickly. 

This is the commemorative pin Anthony was given from
the CHLA Emergency Transport Team
Our Journey Through Cancer

The ED Visit

November 30, 2017

Anthony never made it to school that day and I never made it to work, not knowing that once we walked through those automatic sliding doors of the Emergency Room department that we would end up leaving later that evening in a helicopter. Anthony would not return to school for several months and I would stop working for a total of 16 months.

It was 9:20am and we had already been in the ED for about half an hour. ED visits always seem so much longer than what they really are. The waiting time is daunting while you wait and figure out what got you there in the first place. Ricky (Anthony’s dad) and I sat at Anthony’s bedside while the nurses did their assessments and drew blood for lab tests. Those of which did not indicate anything was wrong. The initial physician who evaluated Anthony wanted to also disregard his symptoms as gastroenteritis but parents who know their child better than anyone else, we knew that could not be the case. I asked the physician if he could at least do an imaging study to rule out anything in his abdomen (me of course praying that it had nothing to do with his brain as my google searches had determined). He ordered an ultrasound of the abdomen and that resulted in no abnormality either. So now what?

Well you should never take what you are told at face value if your intuition is truly telling you something different and in this case if it involves your health or that of your child. So being a nurse and knowing what lingo tends to put physicians in a hard spot, I pulled that card and told him I did not feel safe taking my son home like this without further evaluation. At that point he called in a pediatrician for a consultation, the person who would change our lives forever.

The pediatrician that evaluated Anthony was very thorough and took her time in evaluating him. She spent a good hour with us in the room while she gathered a detailed history and performed a head to toe assessment on him. I noticed toward the end of her assessment she focused mostly on his eyes. She noted he had bilateral nystagmus and while examining his eyes with a opthalmoscope she verbalized that she wanted to order a MRI of the brain. She did not state it at the time but it was confirmed later by the opthalmologist what she must have seen that warranted her to order the MRI is his optic nerve was not visualized in a straight line as it should be.

As a nurse, I already knew that physicians do not have the tendency to order such imaging studies, especially that of a MRI of the brain, unless they have an inclination to rule out something bad. But even then, you hold on to any fragment of hope you might have that nothing potentially life threatening can be wrong.

I accompanied Anthony to his MRI, which as a limited MRI so it only took about 20 minutes. Upon walking out of the MRI room, one of the MRI techs asked “do you mind telling me what symptoms prompted you to bring him in? Was he stumbling while walking or having headaches?” I simply replied that he was only having intermittent episodes of vomiting, as she then replied with “Oh.” That was already a red flag that a tech must have seen something on the images that sparked her interest to want to ask me. Which if you’re in the healthcare profession, you know that she should have never even asked me that information. But I did not have enough time to process it all, soon after we were headed back to the room.

As we were transported back to the room, with Anthony on the gurney to be reunited with his dad, there two physicians walked in behind us. One of the physicians was the pediatrician that had evaluated Anthony and ordered the MRI and the other we have never even seen prior to that moment. Again, I knew this is usually not the case if the results of that MRI had been normal. The pediatrician asked if she could speak to his dad and I outside of the room while the other doctor stayed with Anthony.

Before she could speak tears were already running down my face. Unfortunately being a nurse I know a little too much and knew that the next words that would leave her mouth were not going to be good news. Her demeanor gave it all away. She could barely look at us in the eyes and I could see her hands as she looked down at the floor. Sure enough within the next few seconds she verbalized the words “I have some news and it is not good news. We found a mass/tumor in Anthony’s brain.” Within those seconds I felt the blood leave my finger tips and my heart collapse. I could barely breathe and was drowning in my own tears.

Thank God I was not there alone in the ED with Anthony because I am not sure how I would have taken the news if I were by myself. Although Ricky was devastated as much as I was he was able to keep it together for the both of us. Before we were reunited with Anthony in the room, the pediatrician walked us over to the nursing station to show us the MRI images and point out the mass in his brain. It was surreal and a complete indescribable feeling what I felt at that moment. As I type these words, now 460 days later, it still all comes back to me so vividly. Like a nightmare I will never fully be able to wake up from. Because unfortunately this has been our reality.

Our Journey Through Cancer

A Mother’s Intuition

It was November 18, 2017. A day like any other, or so I had hoped. Only that the morning had already started out in a peculiar way.

It was the first day of the beginning of Thanksgiving break for Anthony during his fourth grade year of elementary. We had planned to enjoy that Saturday as usual. Only that when he woke up, he sat up in bed and had projectile vomiting. For those of you that are not in the medical field, this is quite alarming as stomach contents are suddenly and forcefully propelled several feet away from you. It was noticeably different than the usual vomiting he would have had as result of an illness. Several red flags came to mind immediately: he vomited shortly after waking up without having had anything to eat or drink, the vomiting was forceful, he had not recently been around anyone that had been sick and most alarming was that he had no other accompanying symptoms like fever, nausea, abdominal pain or anything else that would be present had it been a stomach flu virus of some sort. He only had one episode of vomiting that morning. Its almost as if it had never even occurred. The rest of the day went on as usual.

The following morning, the exact same scenario occurred all over again. The next two days that followed it was as if nothing had ever taken place in the days that had preceded. The vomiting had went away and no other signs or symptoms surfaced. Until the vomiting came back on that 5th day. I took him to see his pediatrician, who was a new doctor to him to him at the time in which he had never seen, and he diagnosed him with gastroenteritis, better known as the “stomach flu” but also suggested perhaps he was stressed. Neither of the two could possibly apply, Anthony had no symptoms of the actual flu and if you know him personally or have come to learn about him through his journey, you’ll know stress has never been a factor. As a concerned mother and applying my critical thinking skills as a nurse, I had asked the doctor if he could order lab tests or imaging studies but he was reluctant at that time “because there are no alarming symptoms.” Well, vomiting alone without any other symptoms is very concerning!

Anthony returned to school after Thanksgiving break on November 27, 2017. He had felt well that morning to go to school and again no other symptoms had developed. If anything we would have hope that at that point whatever virus that had possibly came and inflicted Anthony with this peculiar vomiting, as the doctor suggested, would have cleared his body. Unfortunately that was not the case and the monster that we were actually dealing with was much larger than we could have ever imagined.

Over the course of 12 days Anthony had intermittent episodes of vomiting. His dad and I also started to notice he was losing weight rapidly as witnessed with his shirts fitting quite loosely and his collar bone starting to protrude. Anthony has always been slender, so his weight loss was quickly noticeable in that short time frame. His dad and I knew it had to be something more than just a typical “flu.” 

The night prior to taking Anthony in to the hospital his dad had informed me that Anthony had an episode of vomiting about an hour after dinner. This is what would now be the twelfth day. Suddenly my anxiety escalated and what was just a mother’s intuition of knowing something more than just vomiting was occurring with my son, turned to my critical thinking skills of a nurse. It was the night of November 29, 2017 that I lay in my bed with my eyes glued to my computer monitor and my heart racing. Despite how many times I have told my family and friends to not google their symptoms on the internet, because chances are it will be false information or a worse case scenario of what may actually be occurring, I did just that. I kept googling “acute onset of vomiting upon wakening with no other symptoms” and “intermittent episodes of vomiting in a child with no other symptoms.” Both of which resulted in possibly being brain related and worst case scenario a brain tumor.

That would be the first of many nights that I would not sleep. That night I asked him to bring him over in the morning prior to taking him to school so that I could assess him in person. That next morning I had already sent out a group text to my fellow nurse coworkers letting them know that I would be calling out sick from work that day and proceeded to let them know what had been occurring with Anthony. They concurred that the best thing would be to have him evaluated in the Emergency Room.

The next set of publications serve as a memoir of the timeline of events that we have lived and our journey through cancer from my perspective, as a mother and nurse.