Leah Is My Sister

Leah Is My Sister

I was going through my 11 year old daughter’s paper work from her past school year today and I found this. I asked her permission to publish it on my blog.

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I also came across several instances where she had to write about her family. In each instance she included Leah and said that she had three siblings. I thought that all of that was so beautiful and I felt so proud of her.

Adults have told me of instances where children they knew had died years ago and their names were no longer mentioned. I’m so glad that our youngest is comfortable talking and writing about her sister who loved her so very much.

I also know from talking to other people, that in years gone by, children were shielded and “protected” from the so-called unpleasant realities of life. This was sometimes done by sending children away to stay with a relative when there was serious illness or death in the house.

Some adults who experienced this as children have told me that they found being excluded from what was happening, a hugely traumatic experience, as they were denied the opportunity of being able to process what was happening and of being able to say goodbye to their loved one. They then found it extremely difficult to work their way through the stages of grief and it compounded their distress.

I never knew that our story was going to end like this and I certainly didn’t have any time to work out a “game plan” for the best way to do things. However, a combination of divine inspiration and mother’s intuition, led me to involve all of our children in Leah’s journey as much as possible.

When we received that first phone call with Leah’s diagnosis on April 19th 2013, the consultant in Belfast suggested “tissue typing” our other two teenage children but not our youngest, who was only nine at the time. I immediate disagreed with him and told him “you can’t make a difference in our children“.

When I got off the phone and discussed it with our youngest, she demonstrated a mature understanding of the situation and said that she wanted to be part of whatever was needed to save Leah’s life.

Miriam getting blood taken to see if she was eligible to donate her bone marrow to Leah in April 2013
Our youngest getting blood taken to see if she was eligible to donate her bone marrow to Leah in April 2013

She also accompanied Leah on one of her appointments to the Sperrin Oncology/Haematology Unit in Altnagelvin Hospital in early July, past the sign that reads “No Children Allowed.” Technically speaking Leah was also still a child herself.

In early June when I received a telephone call with a summons to Bristol for an Outpatients Appointment for Leah and Simon, I instinctively asked on the phone if we could bring our youngest with us. I was told that it would be no problem, as there would be a Play Therapist there to keep her amused.

It was so important for her to see firsthand what a lovely “child friendly” hospital that Leah would be having her treatment in. The lively presence of our youngest on this trip, lifted all of our spirits too, as she was the only one who hadn’t sat through a depressing discussion of Leah’s diagnosis and prognosis.

On the 21st July 2013, our youngest flew to Bristol with Leah and me. On Monday morning the 22nd July, our youngest said goodbye to Leah and me at the door of the Bone Marrow Transplant Unit. It was only meant to be a temporary goodbye, as Leah expected to just get a test dose of chemotherapy and be back out again within hours. However she very quickly developed severe septicaemia and became very seriously ill.

A friend looked after Miriam and took her Gromiteering.
A friend looked after her and took her Gromiteering.

Our youngest next saw her sister at the end of August. Leah was an inpatient on the Adolescent Ward by then, but she was allowed out to Sam’s House, the Clic Sargent Hostel, for a few hours each day.

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The first day, Leah and her younger sister had great fun together, using the recreational facilities at Sam’s House. By the last day Leah was starting to become unwell and she had a lot less energy.

Our youngest and her dad visited again in October, when Leah was very unwell. Leah was overjoyed to see them both. She wasn’t well enough to leave the hospital, but they did girlie things together in Leah’s hospital room, like painting each other’s nails. Our youngest also helped me to shop for treats for Leah, while her Dad kept Leah company.

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Once Leah and I finally got home in November, Leah and her younger sister became inseparable. Every day when she got off the school bus, she headed straight for Leah’s bedroom and there she remained until I chased her off to bed.

One weekend, for a special treat, our youngest was allowed to have a sleepover with Leah. Leah’s immune system was very weak, so I was of course very particular about ensuring that her younger sister adhered to strict standards of hygiene.

The last ever photo taken of Miriam and Leah together on the 20th December 2013.
The last ever photo taken of Leah and her younger sister together on the 20th December 2013.

On Leah’s last evening at home, Thursday 26th December 2013, Leah cooked a cheese omelette for herself and her younger sister. Then they played together on Leah’s new WiiU. Their laughter rang out through the house.

I write here about how Leah pleaded in ICU for younger sister to be allowed in to visit her. I still feel sad about that.

A few months after Leah died, her younger sister was given the opportunity of attending an Art Therapy group for children dealing with loss, at the ETHOS Family Support Hub in Shantallow.

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She doesn’t like talking about her feelings, but she loves arts and crafts.

Attending this group seemed to help her to find a way of expressing her love for her sister through arts and crafts. After attending this group, she started printing off lots of photos of her sister and making up collages of these photos for her bedroom walls.

I’m glad that she’s found a way of expressing herself that she feels comfortable with.

A Phone Call Can Change Everything

A Phone Call Can Change Everything

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My name is Dr ….. and I work in Belfast City Hospital. Has anyone given you the results of Leah’s bone marrow biopsy?”

It was Friday afternoon the 19th April 2013. I had been sitting on my bed, typing up an assignment for a work related course that I was doing, when the phone rang. It was a withheld number and I had hesitated before answering, not wanting to be interrupted by yet another stranger’s voice trying to sell me a product that I neither wanted nor needed.

My heart started beating faster and breathing became more difficult. This was a stranger’s voice alright, and although he wasn’t trying to “sell” me anything, the news that he was delivering, was something that I neither “wanted nor needed”.

He told me that Leah had a type of bone marrow failure called myelodysplasia and that she needed a bone marrow transplant.

I asked him if he was a paediatric haematologist and he said no, that he was an adult haematologist.

So I said “Why are you ringing me then, Leah already has an adult haematologist who we like very much and we don’t want another one.”

He replied that he was also a transplant coordinator. I then said that we had been told that if anything sinister was found in our daughter’s bone marrow biopsy that she would immediately be transferred to the care of the paediatric haematologist at the Children’s Hospital in the Royal who had done the biopsy. Our daughter was only fifteen years old.

This doctor replied that she wasn’t available at the moment ( I found out later that she was on honeymoon but that there was other paediatric haematologists).

He went on to say that he wanted our whole family in his consulting rooms in Belfast on Monday.

I asked “Is my daughter’s medical condition so serious & so urgent that we have to come and see you so soon?” And he replied “Yes – but you can come on Tuesday if you prefer?

I then asked Leah if she would prefer to miss school on Monday or on Tuesday and she consulted her class timetable and said Tuesday, so Tuesday it was.

The reason Leah’s siblings were required was for “tissue typing” for a potential match for the bone marrow transplant.

Then he said “Miriam is only 9, she might be a bit young.” I told him that Miriam has very good understanding and she would most certainly want to be a part of anything that’s being done to help Leah.

I said “Please don’t make a difference in my children.” So he told me to bring all four of them.

I asked him where we had to go and he said “Well, you know where the Tower Block is at the City Hospital?” I was losing it at this stage and I said rather angrily through my tears “Why would I know where the Tower Block is? When in my entire life have I ever needed to know where your Tower Block is?”

He gave me more directions and the phone call ended.

Leah had been sitting beside me all this time, googling myelodysplasia and bone marrow transplant on her smart phone. That’s how she received her diagnosis.

I have to say, bad and all as that phone call may sound, it was wee buns compared to what we heard when we met the doctor face to face.

Nothing I read on the internet over the weekend was anywhere near as bad as what we were told when we got to that first appointment.

The phone call only told me that my daughter needed a bone marrow transplant and I knew very little about bone marrow transplants.

In that first appointment the doctor was so blunt about the implications of Leah’s diagnosis and consequently all the things that could go wrong before, during and after the transplant that we were left feeling that it was actually a miracle that Leah needed in order to survive! I write about this first appointment here.

It was a huge relief a week or so later when we got the phone call to say that Simon was a 10/10 bone marrow match as the Dr had said that if none of the siblings were a match then Leah would need a donor from the World Wide Registry.

He’d said that this could take up to 4 months and during the wait Leah’s disease could advance rapidly and her chances of survival could be greatly reduced.

A short while after this we also got word that Leah had been accepted by Bristol Children’s Hospital for transplant.

By then I knew that this was also good news as Bristol is a Centre of Excellence for treating rare blood diseases such as Leah’s and having her transplant there would greatly increase her chances of survival.

Gradually hope was being restored.

I have always loved the song “10,000 Reasons” by Matt Redman but it took on a special significance for me around the time of Leah’s diagnosis, especially the verse

The sun comes up; it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes”

For me the challenge each day was to be still singing when evening came.

In those early weeks and months after Leah was diagnosed I found it almost impossible to pray or read my Bible – I wasn’t angry with God, I have never felt a need to ask “Why?”

I just felt so overwhelmed by all that was happening and so numb with shock that the only way in which I could engage with God was through listening to worship music and singing along.

I haven’t a note in my head and can’t sing in tune to save my life, but I used to get on my own in the house or in the car and put on CDs of worship music and sing to God with all of my heart. This helped me to connect with God and feel His presence with me.