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Almost a year ago, Patty Furco was told she was going to lose her daughter.
Her second child, Abby, was diagnosed with Philadelphia chromosome-positive acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of four. Today the 10 year old based in Virginia Beach has made a “miracle” recovery even doctors can’t explain.
“Sometimes we can’t grasp what has happened and what continues to happen,” the 41-year-old mom-of-three tells Global News. “We had prepared for Abby to die.”
In the last few years, Abby went through several hospital visits, intense chemotherapy sessions and radiation treatments, Furco says, but in 2015, things took a turn.
After being in remission for 11 months, Abby relapsed in September 2014. A year later, she had a bone marrow transplant that caused acute graft versus host disease (GvHD) — a common side effect of the transplant.
“Late last spring the side effects [of GvHD] were out of control and started a downward spiral leading to continuous dialysis [and] a long pediatric intensive care unit stay,” Furco says.
Abby’s organs weren’t keeping up and her kidneys began to fail.
“[My husband] and I tried to be hopeful, yet we prepared everyone, including our other daughters, for the end.”
Her family was told by doctors their little girl would die.
“I still have flashbacks to sitting at my dining room table with the head hospice nurse, choosing a funeral home. [My husband] Joe and I talked about where we wanted her remains. I clearly remember thinking about specific songs I wanted played during her memorial service,” Furco says.
Living in a tight-knit military community, Furco says her friends gathered together to give support.
Last year she remembers driving Abby to a girl scout event in another part of town, and passing by the funeral home she had picked out for her daughter.
“My heart sunk and I called Joe crying,” she says. “It just caught me off guard. Here I am in the car with my thriving Abby and we’re driving by the funeral home I picked six months earlier.”
Abby’s doctor, pediatric hematologist and oncologist Jacob Wessler, told People magazine there’s no real explanation of Abby’s recovery.
“We have no idea [how she got better] and there is no way to test it,” he tells Global News. “She’s the only patient I have to do this. She is one for one as far as our experience.”
Wessler was the first person to diagnose Abby and has been working with the Furco family for six years.
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Although he adds there have been ups and downs throughout the journey and continues to be, last June he remembers bringing Abby home to feel more comfortable. At this point, he had believed she wouldn’t survive.
He reduced the amount of medication and check-ins, as her family prepared for the worst.
“But she sat there and just started getting better,” he says. “It was really interesting and fascinating.”
At first, Wessler told the family there was no absolute timeline of when her organs would fail, but weeks and soon months went by and Abby was feeling better. Almost a year later, she is the best she’s ever been.
“I don’t think we’ll ever know what happened, but it’s a good news and bad news situation,” he says. “It’s great that it has happened, but it is a little maddening we don’t know why. But for Abby it doesn’t matter why — what matters is she’s better.”
Parenting coach Julie Romanowski of Vancouver says for any family or parent who is going through a similar situation with a sick child, the most important thing to do is to be aware of your situation.
“It sounds obvious but when people are in crisis mode, we think life is ‘normal’ and we need to keep going,” she tells Global News. “Get a good support network and let them know you are in crisis. Pretending nothing is going on adds more stress.”
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And if you have other children, it can get difficult to talk about what their sibling is going through, especially the topic of death.
Romanowski says siblings also need a support network and parents need to be honest with them.
“If you pretend nothing is happening, that’s what makes the situation dangerous. We have to get real and accept our current situations… younger children will look at their parents on how to deal with the crisis and mimic it.”
Furco says since 2012, the family has been very active in raising awareness for childhood cancer. They raise money for cancer research and put time into learning about Abby’s medication.
Abby is also an ambassador for the St. Baldrick`s Foundation, a private fund of childhood cancer research grants. Since 2012, her fundraising campaign has raised US$133,226.
Patty Furco and her daughter Abby. Courtesy of Patty Furco
Patty Furco and her daughter Abby.
Courtesy of Patty Furco
But Furco says hearing from other families with similar situations has been the most heartening. Some people tell her Abby has inspired them to get out of bed or keep fighting their own disease.
“That’s a gift that could only come out of this dark journey that has consumed our lives for many years,” she says. “It’s giving people hope and letting them continue dreaming about the future.”
Today, like many children, Abby is looking forward to her Grade 5 graduation. She is once again in remission and is receiving steroids twice a day.
Her mom says she loves to play Minecraft, hang out with her friends and plans on being a chef when she grows up.
“This is amazing as last year around this time, she was barely walking then wheelchair-bound. Through very hard work she is now able to walk on her own, currently working on long distance stamina,” she says.
Furco says her daughter is also looking forward to summer camp, a place where she meets other cancer patients and survivors.
“Our hope for Abby is that she gets to live a full life full of happiness. We take each day as it comes, so we hope that each day continues down the path of good health and growth in every way possible.”