I haven’t written a post specific to Kate in quite some time. I think the last one was when we had it hit day 110 and had already experienced many serious complications post bone marrow transplant. As I reflect back on that post, I can feel the raw emotion of those days. The exhaustion, fear, and anxiety. The crushing guilt of having made the wrong choice for Kate. Not knowing what the next week, or month, or her future would hold. Not knowing if she would survive, or come out of this entire mess intact.
And here we are, 7 months post bone marrow transplant, 219 days. I’m not sure much has changed. Except…
Kate is home.
She is not well, in fact she is still very sick. I think many people understand that when you are home from hospital you must be ‘well’ and ‘recovered’. Kate is neither. She is home because we fought hard to get her here. We saw her wasting away in a hospital bed day after day, and we saw no significant changes in her care or treatment, only unending complications. Any child in that environment would not thrive or survive. We could see the ‘shift’ happening in Kate – quieter, less enthusiastic, disinterest in getting out of bed, sadness and tears when her dad or brother visited and then left for home again. She had become accustomed to her little world of four walls and seemed resigned if not accepting that this was her world. She still had her smile and he chuckles, but a shift had happened.
We received very difficult news about Kate in late August. Terrifying news. And we made a decision at that time that Kate would come home. As a child who required total parental nutrition (TPN), this was complicated. One of us had to be trained to manage her PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter), and the obvious choice was me because I was in Montreal with Kate, and most at ease with her medical equipment. Getting trained was another matter – we had been asking about ‘home TPN’ since July. We had been told that ‘yes, this was possible’, however, jurisdictional issues came into play as Kate was an Ontario patient in a Quebec hospital. It was not clear who would deliver the training I required and how they would address the issue of different equipment and set up. So we were delayed – again and again. Eventually it was our bone marrow transplant team at Ste.Justine who stepped up and provided ad hoc training during breaks in our daily hospital life. The home care team in charge of TPN training at Ste.Justine refused to assist us, or train me because of the jurisdictional issues, and Ontario would not let Kate come home unless I was trained. Our home hospital in Ontario does not do TPN training and we were given the option of transferring Kate to Sick Kids (who co-ordinate all TPN for children in Ontario) where we would have 2 weeks of intensive TPN training. I obviously said no to this as transferring Kate to another hospital was clearly not a safe option.
So, bedside training it was…sneaking away to a room to learn about pumps…reviewing heparinizing her PICC…antiseptic protocols…accessing the TPN to add some specific vitamins for Kate etc. It was a crash course and it was perfect (Thank you Karine and Martine!).
With TPN training ‘done’, now we had to sort out all of Kate’s complications, determine which medical team and specialist was the lead for what, outline an emergency care plan, outline a general care coordination plan, and have a comprehensive discharge planning meeting to discuss concerns or questions. Brian and I split that discharge planning meeting between us. He was in Montreal with our team of doctors and specialist there, while I attended the meeting in Ottawa with our team there. It was a typical multi-D (multi-disciplinary meeting) about Kate that we have done many may times before, with about 20 people in attendance. After that meeting, a plan was beginning to come together.
Coming Home Would Be Complicated…
Kate’s bone marrow transplant was supposed to require 6-8 weeks in hospital. This would be followed by a 6 month recovery in protective isolation at home, while her immune suppressive drugs were slowly weaned as her new immune system started to take form and recover. She had a perfect sibling match and was therefore at very low risk for unforeseen complications. She would be back to her life better and ‘healthier’ in 8 months to a year.
This was not the case for Kate.
Kate developed a serious condition post-bone marrow transplant called GVHD – graft versus host disease. Her GVHD recurred 5 times between April and August, and became dependant on steroids. This means even with careful reduction of her steroids, at a certain threshold of dosing – the GVHD would flare again. We also tried several types of immune suppressive drugs over the summer – hoping that we might find one that would be better at controlling the GVHD. Eventually, in August, the team at Ste.Justine took a very aggressive approach to the GVHD that was attacking and destroying Kate’s gastrointestinal system. By this time, Kate had not eaten orally with any kind of regularity, since mid-March. We had attempted several times to kick start her intestines with ‘trophic’ feeding through her NG tube of supplemental nutrition, and we would get to a certain point only to slip back into diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms of GVHD. We had at least 3 different discharge dates over the summer, that we would reach within days, only to slip back into the GVHD cycle. Then throw in a couple of courses of antibiotics for suspected infections, and a true blood borne infection that ‘stuck’ itself to her PICC line – requiring intensive antibiotics and the removal of her life sustaining PICC for 10 hours.
We were stuck and we felt like we would never get Kate well enough to leave the hospital.
Physically we could see Kate deteriorating further because of the prolonged time confined to a hospital room where she spent most of her day in bed. Kate wasn’t allowed to play in the hallways with the other kids, or go to the playroom, because of protective isolation – keeping her safe from others because of her immune suppressed state. She was allowed to roam the hallway on the third floor transplant unit – alone, but she tired of that trip pretty quickly.
Kate had also developed a tremor which we believed was from her medication. The tremor affects everything Kate tries to do independently – drink, dress, walk, play. The only time she gets a reprieve from it is when she is asleep and her body finally relaxes and does not shake. Muscle biopsies and scans did not show a specific cause for the tremor, but did now significant atrophy of her muscles and poor mitochondrial functioning (poor energy supply to her muscles). Combined with her significant weight gain from steroids, Kate was walking less and less.
In August, when we received very difficult news. I was home for a short weekend with Jack, maybe my fourth of the summer. Brief breaks where I could sleep in my own bed, change out my clothes from Montreal, enjoy the quiet of my home, and spend some time with Jack.
On that weekend, I received a call Friday morning from Brian and Kate’s doctors. I was asked to come back as soon as possible. I took Jack with me.
Kate had developed a very serious and unforeseen condition. We left our children with the nurses, and went to a meeting room with her lead BMT doctor and Kate’s nurse. We were given the details about what they had found after some diagnostic testing. We were told the condition Kate had developed was serious, and that given what they knew about her disease, she would likely die from it. We tried to be smart, to ask questions, to try and find the loop-hole or the error they had made in coming to this conclusion. Our doctor has kind eyes, and they are always full of hope. When I looked at him that day, I saw sadness – profound sadness for us and for Kate. In that moment I felt bad for him – that he had to take on this task. I asked him how many times did he have this conversation with parents?
He said, “too many times”.
I asked what we should do? What do we tell Kate? Jack?
“Kate is already showing you what you need to do” – he said. “You just need to follow her lead, she is going to show you the way”. “Just love her and follow her lead.”
Such powerful words. And true words.
And that was when we told the team we were taking Kate home. And they agreed.
Obviously the epilogue to that moment is that Kate is doing much better. The condition she had developed stabilized to everyone’s surprise. It has not been ‘fixed’, but she is living with it and it is monitored regularly. We spent that weekend with our kids, loving them and playing with them. Taking them on picnics and taking pictures. We laughed and in the next moment we cried. Our hearts ached constantly, and we felt sick with fear – but we were focussed on ‘following Kate’s lead’ and she is a joyful and happy child, even when she is struggling.
On September 17th, we packed our van and left Kate’s room at Ste.Justine. I had joked with our nurses that when it was finally our turn to leave the hospital – as we had seen so many others do before us – I wanted a parade and balloons. Our entire team made that happen for us – cheering Kate on as she left room 2-12-23 for what we hope is the last time. (Since Kate has been gone, 4 weeks later, they still refer to room 23 as “Kate’s room” had haven’t had another patient in there yet.)
Home has been amazing – and exhausting. It has taken a lot of time and way too much energy to settle in. Issues with our TPN pumps, trying to set up a workable schedule with home care nurses and personal support workers, fighting to get Kate the rehabilitative therapy that she needs in place, trying to get back into a routine as a family after having lived apart for 7 months, and incorporating all of my new nursing skills and duties have been some of challenges we’ve had to meet.
I can honestly say that now, at week 4, despite being tired, we are finally feeling settled. Kate is doing well. She is happy and wakes every morning with a smile. She loves being home with her brother and we have seen a big change in Jack. He has carried an incredible weight for an 11 year old boy – not to mention the fact that he feels responsible for Kate has her bone marrow donor. I am happy to see them together again.
Brian and I are doing our best to keep medications organized and on time, prepare food for Kate (yes, she is eating again…slowly) according to antiseptic prep protocols, and keep our home sanitized and a clean environment for Kate. There is endless laundry, cleaning, and still sleepless nights from getting up with Kate every 2 hours – but we go for walks, we sit down to dinner as a family, Kate is living with us in her home and she is still here.
The moment I heard the news about Kate’s post-BMT complication in August. I was in my car. Brian had asked me to pull over and he and the doctor talked to me together. On the phone I was calm, rationale, trying to pull the pieces together and find the way to push through. It is my natural state – find a way through for Kate. But when I hung up the phone and the news really hit me, I looked up. I looked up and I said, “I’m sorry!”.
“I’m sorry. I made the wrong choice. Please – PLEASE – don’t take her.”
I still feel that way. I may always feel that way. I am not sure we made the best decision for Kate. We have dug her into a incredible hole. But she is incredible and she may just have enough JOY and strength to climb out. She is that incredible.
Maybe in a year I will feel differently. Or feel profound relief and gratitude that she was not taken from me. That I got to keep her.
We are happy to be home. Joyful to be home.