On the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Irma, Jennifer Newman wasn’t interested in sharing her memories from the day of the storm.
Instead, she was working on erasing them. “It was a pretty emotional week, knowing it was coming up on Sept. 8 and knowing what it meant,” the Wesley Chapel mom said.
A year ago on that date, her daughter Willow, hoping to be celebrating her third birthday, was diagnosed with leukemia.
That diagnosis created more of a storm in Willow’s life than Hurricane Irma ever could, but the two events have since become interwined. As everyone else shared remembrances on the Irma anniversary about the harrowing moments of the storm and the damage and inconveniences it caused, Jennifer, her husband Shawn Stine and Willow and her older sister Eden were at Tropicana Field celebrating Willow’s birthday while watching a Rays baseball game.
Invited because the club was recognizing September as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, some of the Rays players shaved their heads to raise money for the Cut For A Cure program.
Willow giggled her way through doing the honors on Rays second baseman Daniel Robertson.
“I felt like we made some great memories that day,” Jennifer said. “I feel like we took back that day. We were super grateful to rewrite history.”
Last year at the same time, Jennifer was frantically trying to get ready for Irma, buying food and water supplies and cleaning the house. Willow ran errands with her, and the two stopped to buy Paw Patrol birthday decorations for her big day.
But, Jennifer sensed something was wrong with Willow. She was sleeping more than usual, she looked pale and she was asking to be held all the time.
Willow had a routine checkup scheduled for Monday, but with Irma set to come through on Saturday, Jennifer decided not to risk its aftermath and took Willow to the doctor in hopes of getting some antibiotics. Her doctor agreed something might be wrong, and Jennifer and Willow were sent to Florida Hospital Wesley Chapel (FHWC) to do some blood work.
The pathologist there delivered bad news. “I’ll never forget his face or where he was standing in the room,” Jennifer wrote on her Facebook page.
Willow was transferred to John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg. The FHWC nurses, who gave Willow a stuffed giraffe for the trip, looked sad. With sirens blaring, she was rushed away.
After blood transfusions and more tests, doctors told Jennifer and Shawn that Willow likely had pre-b cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (pre B-ALL).
Doctors started blood transfusions immediately and vital checks every hour, and sadness set in. The All Children’s nurses, though, made sure Willow still celebrated her big day, throwing a “Frozen”-themed birthday party.
Video from the party went viral and was featured on CNN and in People magazine.
That first night, Jennifer and Shawn slept in chairs pushed up against Willow’s hospital crib.
The next morning, Saturday, with Irma bearing down, Shawn had to leave. The Howard Frankland Bridge, which connects Tampa and St. Petersburg, was being closed, and he had to get back to Eden.
That night, with a daughter newly diagnosed with cancer and separated from her husband and other daughter by a threatening hurricane, Jennifer went outside.
“The wind was picking up,” she says. “I found a bench, sat down and just started crying. It was one of the only times I let myself loose. It was a lot to handle.”
Back On Track…
But, handle it Willow has.
This past year, she spent 70 days in the hospital, had more than three dozen blood transfusions, 15 lumbar punctures (which collect samples of cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF, from the spinal column) and three major surgeries.
She has endured countless trips to the clinic for chemotherapy treatments. She takes chemo every night at home, and one night a week, she has to take nine pills. Her body has suffered from neuropathy, but at the same time, Willow has fought back.
Hurricane Irma will become an afterthought one day. But today, Jennifer says Willow is doing much better.
She is like any other child, running and jumping around, swimming and riding a bike. She is happy and engaged, and other than being poked by needles, she actually looks forward to her trips to the clinic.
“I think she’s made a lot of great strides in terms of learning how to deal with the procedures she has to go through, and we love seeing her,” said Jessica Wishnew, M.D., in a story on the John Hopkins All Children’s website. “She definitely brings a lot of energy and happiness when she comes in.”
On the one-year anniversary of the storms that swept in and changed her life, know this: the prognosis for Willow is good. Dr. Wishnew says that the cure rate for pre B-ALL is in the 90-plus percent rate.
“I know in my heart she’s going to beat this,” Jennifer says. “She’s strong, she’s a little fighter. I know she’s going to beat this.”
Willow will do her fighting with a lot of people in her corner. Just last week, someone in the community dropped by Willow’s home to leave a gift and some cookies. Those kind of things happen often. Jennifer says what were once complete strangers have become some of her closest friends.
“I just want to say, we are blessed,” she says. “We are blessed to be in Wesley Chapel, where there has been so much support. Between that and all the prayers, it has been wonderful.”