CATLETTSBURG, Ky. - Before the coronavirus pandemic, the family of Katie Childers had already faced its biggest threat: cancer.
The 15-year-old Boyd County High School sophomore was diagnosed in September with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her recovery has been more than a community effort.
“We were contacted by every school in the area and they said, ‘We want to do something for Katie. What can we do for Katie?’” said Velvet Childers, Katie’s mother.
Her mother took her to Louisville in August to a Shawn Mendes concert — it was a month before her birthday.
“She was the typical 15-year-old girl at a concert, screaming and carrying on,” Mrs. Childers said. “She was so excited to get to go. She lost her voice. I went with her and I kinda got a little hoarse myself.”
Compounding the problem with her voice was the pollen they took in the next day at the Louisville Zoo.
“A week later, her voice didn’t come back,” Velvet Childers said. “She had no temperature, nothing to make me suspect anything, so I figured it was a combination of allergies and yelling at the concert. After a couple of weeks of complaining about having trouble swallowing and her voice was real raspy, I took her to the doctor and they thought it was probably allergies.”
Katie’s discomfort continued and a return trip to the doctor, along with blood work, revealed she had Epstein-Barr Syndrome. Some other levels weren’t right, either, but no further testing was done.
Later, she began having trouble drinking.
“She was in the living room trying to drink. You could literally hear, it would go into her throat and stop and then start to trickle,” Mrs. Childers said, adding her appetite wasn’t normal, either.
Mrs. Childers took her daughter to the emergency room, where a CAT scan revealed a mass in Katie’s chest and throat, pushing into her airway.
“(The physician) showed us pictures and you couldn’t even see that there was an opening at all for her to be able to breathe,” Mrs. Childers said. “He said, ‘I don’t know how she’s doing as well as she is.’”
She was sent to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, where doctors found 90% of her airway blocked, putting her at risk for a collapse of her airway.
After testing, they learned Katie had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She wasn’t a candidate for surgery because of the position of the mass.
“I never one time imagined I’d hear the word ‘cancer.’ That never crossed my mind, not even once,” Mrs. Childers said. “That’s the most devastating thing to hear. Not knowing anything about Hodgkin’s lymphoma, I wondered, is this something they can treat? I had to not think about those things in that moment. I just had to give it all to the Lord and say, ‘You know what’s going on; You know the outcome and I have to put my trust in You and know You’ll do what’s best for my child because she was your child first.’”
‘It’s gonna be OK’
Katie’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma was treated with five rounds of chemo — she took treatment on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and one day the following week.
She displayed incredible strength, Velvet Childers said.
“This little child, from Day 1 when they walked in the room and said ‘She has a mass in her chest and neck,’ she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Mom, it’s gonna be OK. God’s gonna take care of me. It’s going to be all right,’” Mrs. Childers said.
At one point while in Nationwide, her airway did collapse and she was put on a ventilator for about a week. There was a hole in her trachea and it was unclear if the mass pushed through the trachea or if the hole was made when she was intubated.
“Even with the vent in her mouth, and they didn’t sedate her, she was awake the whole time she had vent,” Mrs. Childers said. “Whenever they have to take somebody for a test, you can’t take that big machine, that ventilator, they have to bag you, where they have to squeeze a little ball to keep you breathing — she did it herself and they said they never had anyone do that themselves.”
On the way home from the final chemo treatment, she got a call from the doctor, who said she had a 90% airway blockage and to come back immediately.
She did, and was in the hospital until Dec. 23.
“During flu season they just allow four visitors, so she couldn’t see people and that was hard on her,” Mrs. Childers said. “But she got to be home for Christmas and that was awesome.”
Katie still needed radiation treatment because tests showed cancer activity in her throat. Radiation was done at Ohio State University. Her 20 treatments were finished on Feb. 10.
A PET scans in March showed her scores remained high, which indicated the possibility of some active cancer or inflammation, maybe even some remaining mass in her airway.
‘We kept praying’
With COVID-19 posing a threat to even the healthiest of the population, doctors decided to leave the mass alone unless Katie developed breathing trouble.
“We kept praying and we had our church (Southside Nazarene) pray and pray and put her on the prayer list,” Mrs. Childers said.
The family experienced an outpouring of support from Katie’s schools, too.
“I can’t even begin to tell you what those people have done for this child,” Mrs. Childers said. “All the staff members have contacted me at different times — elementary teachers, middle school teachers, high school teachers — and came together and supported us in prayer and love and just all the gifts and raising money to help pay for her treatments. It’s just amazing what these people have done as a community.”
She said even schools Katie hadn’t attended contacted her to see what their staff and students could do. Many sent cards and gifts.
“It’s just in these times and the way the world is right now, to see so much love is overwhelming,” Mrs. Childers said. “People didn’t even know my child loved her enough to keep her in their prayers and reach out to do whatever they could do.”
Katie’s father, Derek, works at LHC, a home health care company in Huntington. Although he’s been there less than a year, Velvet Childers said his co-workers donated vacation time so he could have more time off to be with Katie.
She said people with whom she works at King’s Daughters Medical Center helped her by checking on her parents while she and her husband and their son, Jackson, were with Katie in Columbus. The family even received a gift from a family in New Zealand.
“They contacted us and sent Katie a box of things that they have in New Zealand, just different really cool things to brighten her day, and it did,” Mrs. Childers said.
‘Best thing ever’
Perhaps Katie’s best gift was from her parents, who presented her with a soft-coated Wheaten terrier she named Cassie.
“She has just been the best thing ever,” Mrs. Childers said. “She’s been good for Katie, but she’s actually been good for the whole family.”
Katie had her last scan about two weeks ago, and the news was positive.
“They said the hole in the trachea has healed completely, and nothing is blocking her airways,” Mrs. Childers said. “It’s a true miracle. Just six weeks earlier there was a blockage. Now, they don’t feel like there is any active cancer.”
Katie is to go back in about two months for another scan and will be checked on a regular basis, with scans becoming less frequent as positive reports continue.
Mrs. Childers said her daughter was always strong, but watching her cope with Hodgkin’s lymphoma has been amazing, even to her.
“I’ve worked in a hospital for 23 years and I’ve seen a lot of things, and I don’t feel like I’m saying this because she’s my children. She’s the strongest person I know,” Velvet Childers said. “The doctors and nurses all said her strength is amazing. One of her doctors said, ‘I’m just going to be honest with you. I’m really not worried about it, because she has proved me wrong in everything. She’s the strongest young lady I’ve ever encountered.’ …Of course, I feel that way because she’s mine, but when other people tell you that, it makes you feel good.”
Mrs. Childers said another great support was Child Life Specialists at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. They form a team that aims to make patients feel more comfortable by giving them special treatment. For instance, Mrs. Childers said they “plastered the walls” in Katie’s room with posters of Shawn Mendes and Harry Stiles, her favorites.
Katie was so impressed with the support provided by Child Life Specialists, she’s considering that as a career possibility.
Meanwhile, the family is collecting items to donate to the hospital’s team such as arts and crafts items, puzzles and games. “Anything that will keep them busy,” Mrs. Childers said. Each time they visit the hospital for a scan or checkup, they plan to take a load of donations.
“I love those people so much because the times when I couldn’t be with my child when she was having procedures that I knew would be terribly hard for her, I wanted to be there and hold her,” Velvet Childers said. “They went with her and stood in my place. I will never, ever forget what they’ve done for me and my Katie. It’s a nightmare to not be there, not to be able to be there for your child.”
In fact, Mrs. Childers said she and her family are moved to have received such support from throughout the world.
“It’s an amazing feeling that people who don’t even know us, don’t even know her, came together to send us messages of love and support and prayer; it’s so overwhelming,” she said. “I don’ have the words to express how much it has all meant that so many people have loved my child.”