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Difficult ordeal for Howorth familly in Port Coquitlam

Andrea Howarth, her daughter Clara, 6, and son Brennan, 4, do some colouring in their Port Coquitlam home.  - DIANE STRANDBERG/THE TRI-CITY NEWS
Andrea Howarth, her daughter Clara, 6, and son Brennan, 4, do some colouring in their Port Coquitlam home.
— image credit: DIANE STRANDBERG/THE TRI-CITY NEWS

"How did this happen?"

The question on Andrea Howorth's blog cuts like a knife. One day the Port Coquitlam mom and her husband, Nick, are planning a trip to Disneyland with their two children — Clara, now six, and Brennan, who just turned four — and a few months later, they are plunged into a nightmare from which they are still recovering.

As she doles out cupcakes for a treat to her little ones in her comfortable condo off Riverside Drive, it's hard to believe the story Howorth is about to tell, yet, according to statistics, it's a sadly common tale for hundreds of B.C. families.

Last February, Clara, was struck down by a horrible fever that turned out to be Strep A. Later, as the little girl's body fought the illness, her blood work revealed an even stronger adversary: lymphoblastic leukemia.

"It was very scary," Howorth recalls. Flipping through a binder that logs Clara's test results, prescriptions and hospital stays, she describes how Clara, then a kindergarten student at Blakeburn elementary, came home from her Sparks meeting with a headache. The headache turned into flu-like symptoms and a fever of 40 C.

"She couldn't hold anything down," Howorth said, and, with a mother's instinct, she and husband Nick decided to make the trek to BC Children's Hospital on Oak Street in Vancouver for some expert advice.

They made the right decision.

"We by-passed the lineup and were admitted into emergency right away," she said.

In the hospital's intensive care unit, Clara was given round-the-clock care by nurses and doctors who specialize in dealing with children and who patiently answered the Howorths' litany of questions.

Clara's throat became so swollen with inflammation, she was hard to recognize and a tube had to be placed into her throat so she could take in fluids. Monitored day and night, Clara was kept under the watchful eyes of doctors and nurses while the Howorths spelled off each other, staying next to their daughter in a small cot, or returning home to Brennan, who was being looked after by family.

Difficult diagnosis

It took several days for the eventual, shocking diagnosis but by then, anxiety and exhaustion had begun to take its toll.

The couple, well known in Port Coquitlam because they grew up here, fell asleep together in the tiny cot pushed up against Clara's bed. "It was so tight, there was just no room," Howorth said. A curtain divider hung in her face but discomfort was a small price to pay to be near their little girl, who was fighting for her life.

Thankfully, they had great support from the staff at BCCH, and their close-knit family, friends and colleagues. Howorth's parents even cut short a cruise to be with their daughter and Nick, a police officer, was able to get time off work.

The diagnosis, when it came about eight days after Clara was admitted, was hard to take.

"We were just devastated," said Howorth.

Clara Howarth

With leukemia confirmed through bone marrow testing, the family exchanged one cramped room in ICU to another in the oncology ward and Clara began chemotherapy treatments.

She started to get better and the Howorths began to look around and see other families going through the same ordeal.

One day, they brought a cooler of food because chemotherapy treatments affect children's sense of taste and they wanted to bring her special treats. They looked into the ward fridge, Howorth said, and there was no room. "We didn't realize so many families were living there."

In fact, childhood cancer is surprisingly common, with approximately 850 Canadian children expected to develop cancer this year —100 of them newly diagnosed in B.C. All of the British Columbia cases will end up at BC Children's, where staff are experienced in dealing with the special needs of children and research is being conducted into new therapies.

"I can't say enough about the staff. They are amazing and they've become our friends," Howorth now says, with some relief. After several weeks of treatment, Clara returned home in the spring and, although extremely weak and with the trade-mark hair loss, finished kindergarten and is now back at school in Grade 1.

Capital campaign

Her cancer is in remission, although she still has to receive treatments that are extremely hard on her body. The long-planned trip to Disneyland that would have taken place this fall was cancelled but Howorth is thankful her daughter is doing so well.

In fact, she has become a BC Children's Hospital booster and is supportive of a $200-million capital campaign to replace the aging facilities with a new hospital that will be much more comfortable for families and more efficient for staff. Recently, she toured a mock-up of the new design and can't say enough about it.

"There are families who have to live there and they need this."

Plans call for larger rooms, the consolidation of oncology services on one floor, instead of three, as they are now, dedicated lounge areas and larger shared facilities, including a kitchen.

The improvements will be a benefit, she agrees, but for now, being home with her children every day and seeing Clara's health improve is all Howorth really needs.

That trip to Disneyland can wait.

Fast facts:

BC Children's Hospital plans

• BC Children's Hospital has embarked on a $200-million capital campaign towards the construction of a $683-million hospital expected to open in 2018.

• BC Children’s is the main provincial resource for children with cancer; any child in B.C. who is suspected of having cancer is sent to BCCH for diagnosis.

• Between 100 and 150 children are diagnosed with cancer annually in B.C., and at any given time BCCH has about 800 children in active treatment.

• In 2011, 8,969 children and teens visited the oncology/hematology and bone marrow transplant clinics at BCCH.

To help out with the capital campaign, visit www.beasuperhero.ca or call the foundation at 604-875-2444

dstrandberg@tricitynews.com

 

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