When eight-year-old Paige Elliott turned down chocolate treats over Easter in 2012 her mum Dee knew something was up. “She loves chocolate and she didn’t eat any, which I thought was a bit odd.”
By the time step-dad Jamie picked Paige up from a school holiday camp suffering from what everyone thought was a feverish flu she was very ill, needing to be carried from the car to see the doctor.
Paige was rushed to Hawkes Bay Hospital A&E for blood tests. By 10am the following day she was aboard the local air ambulance with her 32-week pregnant mum, bound for Starship Children’s Hospital in Auckland, while Jamie and his 12 year-old daughter Ivy drove up to meet them.
“I had to beg them to put me on the flight,” said Dee. “Thinking back it didn’t really hit me how sick she was until the lift at Starship stopped at Level 7, Oncology/Haematology.”
Only two days after her initial blood test in Napier, Paige was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML).
At that point it felt like our perfect world had ended.
Over the next five months Paige, Dee, Jamie and Ivy put their lives on hold, relocating to Auckland’s Ronald McDonald House while Paige received treatment at Starship Hospital. During that time Paige received four rounds of chemotherapy, four operations, several lumbar punctures and had a portacath inserted into her chest through which she could receive chemotherapy and blood transfusions.
On June 21 Dee went into labour in Paige’s hospital room. However Paige’s first meeting with baby Chloe needed to be over Skype as Paige was neutropenic, which meant she was at high risk of infection and visitors were limited. During her hospital stay Paige also suffered pneumonia, influenza B and shingles.
Hair loss can be a big thing to deal with for anyone, more so for a little girl. To help ease the burden during her fourth round of chemotherapy, Jamie let Paige shave his head before he returned the favour.
“It took Paige ages to be comfortable enough to shave,” said Dee. “Her hair thinned out and what remained fell out in clumps, but she didn’t want to look like Smeagol! In the end my father-in-law bought all what was left of her hair from her for $100.”
With a new baby to breastfeed and a sick daughter to care for, Dee and Jamie adopted a punishing schedule where they would each spend 22 hours with Paige, spend two hours together then swap roles.
Dee says the support from Rebecca Weeks, LBC’s Support Services Coordinator, during Paige’s time at Starship was invaluable:
“You get told so much in the beginning from the specialists. The only thing I heard was ‘Paige has leukaemia’ and your mind goes into overdrive and you hear nothing else. Rebecca gave us some very valuable resources to read about AML to understand what it was and how it gets treated, this helped us understand and support Paige in her treatment.
“It was also nice having someone just pop in unexpectedly because you don’t get any visitors, and she kept us occupied which was really lovely.”
Every now and then Paige was allowed out of hospital and on one occasion begged her doctor to allow her to attend the Firefighter Sky Tower Stair Challenge which raises money for Leukaemia & Blood Cancer New Zealand, which she loved.
“As a parent our kisses and cuddles fix everything for them”, says Dee. “Not being able to make her better and letting someone else take over the care of your baby is very hard. It’s so hard just sitting there holding their hand and telling them ‘everything is going to be okay’ when you’re watching them be sick from the medicine, and seeing all the pain in their eyes. I think I cried most nights for a month or so.”
Before Paige was diagnosed, Dee and Jamie had bought a new house and were in the middle of major repairs. When they travelled to Auckland little did they know they wouldn’t return to their jobs or the renovations for five whole months.
During this time the caring Hawkes Bay local community made sure they could bring Paige home to a clean, warm and dust-free home. Nelson Park School held fundraisers and a number of local businesses provided insulation, allergy-free carpet and other products and services.
In September Paige and her family were allowed to return home to Napier where Paige endured another eight weeks of enforced isolation from infection while she recovered.
“Our hometown was wonderful, but it was a little scary returning as suddenly it’s all up to you. If there was something wrong in hospital I’d press a button or wander down the corridor and find a nurse. At home there was no button and no-one to come running.”
During the weeks that Paige couldn’t have visitors for fear of infection, she talked to her friends on the phone or they communicated through the glass door. The only time she went outside was when Dee drove Ivy to school. Chloe’s Plunket visits and trips to the supermarket were managed with family help to keep Paige away from public places.
Six months after returning home, one year after the initial diagnosis, and almost one year since her last session of chemotherapy, Paige is now in remission. She is back at school, has blood tests every two months and next month will be re-immunised.
“It’s been a big year with some challenges for sure,” says Dee. “We certainly owe a lot to LBC as well as Ronald McDonald House and everyone else that helped us get through it all.
Since getting sick Paige has decided that she wants to be a nurse so she can ‘be there for someone else’.
“Every day we are proud of our kids and we love them dearly for just being them,” says Dee.