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Family Spotlight: Tabitha's Story

In October 2020, as eight-year-old Tabitha was about to leave for school, she took one step off the porch and began screaming that her back hurt. Her mom Christie was immediately alarmed: Tabitha had faced a misdiagnosis of leukemia, hip dysplasia, and corrective surgery when she was a preschooler - a traumatic experience for the young family. Not willing to take any chances, Christie took Tabitha to see a specialist for X-rays and six weeks of physical therapy. “We didn’t even make it that six weeks,” Christie remembers.

Energetic and bubbly, Tabitha was a natural performer and pageant devotee. “But she was just so miserable,” her mom recalls. So miserable, in fact, that Tabitha decided she wouldn’t be able to sing the national anthem at an upcoming football game as planned. “That’s how I knew she was really sick,” Christie says. Despite her flagging energy and malaise, Wyoming schools required that Tabitha be present for attendance, even though it meant that Christie would simply sit and wait for the inevitable call to pick up Tabitha when she felt too ill to continue. One particular teacher didn’t even believe she was in pain. “I knew it wasn’t right,” Christie says. “But we were being told we were drama queens.”

Then, on December 1st, Christie received a phone call from school about Tabitha looking ill: “Has anyone checked this out?” It was the confirmation Christie had been waiting for; she immediately took her daughter to the emergency room.

The family hasn’t been home since.

A flurry of testing quickly revealed that Tabitha had acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. When she heard the news, Christie was in disbelief: “‘You’re wrong,’” she remembers saying. “‘You got it wrong then. I’ve already done this,’” referring to the misdiagnosis years earlier. But the medical team assured her, this time, the diagnosis was accurate.

Hospitalized at the height of COVID, Tabitha soon contracted the respiratory illness. Her fragile condition and new ALL diagnosis meant she needed to be transferred to Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children immediately and alone, without Christie. Being separated during this tough moment was incredibly hard on the mother-daughter duo. “It was awful,” Christie remembers. “I felt so powerless. I couldn’t do anything for my kid.” But while medical facilities in small or rural cities might occasionally encounter similar diagnoses, Tabitha desperately needed the longstanding expertise of a world-class medical facility. It was terrifying, but the transport would put Christie’s daughter in the most capable hands, with a medical care team in possession of greater resources and experience than they could find in their home state.

Despite beginning to feel sick herself, Christie grabbed a few changes of clothing, jumped in her car and began driving, arriving in Denver early the next morning. When doctors determined Christie was also suffering from COVID, they reunited the relieved pair in quarantine. The restrictions, however, posed another source of difficulty: Christie’s three-year-old son, Carson, was unable to visit. He had never been away from his mom for so long. Just like that, in less than sixty days, everything about the family's life had changed.

Tabitha’s leukemia treatment began promptly, with chemo sessions she had to attend alone, due to Christie’s own sickness. “That was terrifying for her,” Christie recalls. Before each procedure, the pair would put on matching jewelry and socks, “so she would know I was still there.”

After nearly a month in the hospital, Tabitha had improved enough to be discharged in time for Christmas. Her social worker, Erica, said, “I have a place for you. Brent’s Place.” Christie remembers being shocked. “Before I could panic about where we would stay, they had figured it out.”

On December 23rd, the family of three finally reunited at Brent’s Place. With the holiday just days away, Christie was surprised to find gifts outside the door for both children. “It was so incredible. I was totally overwhelmed, even having to wrap presents was too much. But it was just taken care of.” In partnership with Jason's Friends, a Wyoming-based nonprofit focused on supporting families facing childhood cancer, Christie could breathe another sigh of relief knowing that their Brent's Place stay, no matter how long, would not impact the family’s finances.

As the family settled into their new home, Christie discovered that consideration extended to even the smallest of everyday details like dishes, coffee, and coffee filters. The scope of programming at Brent’s Place gave her the first glimmer of confidence that they could get through this hurdle. Tabitha’s treatments continued, her health improved, and the family began to process the life-altering circumstances they found themselves in. Christie in particular was struggling to find her footing, angry that her child was sick. Her experiences as a single parent navigating pediatric cancer were underscored by her distrust of a medical system that had misdiagnosed her daughter and caused lasting trauma.

But the supportive Brent’s Place community rallied around her family, providing activities and crafts for the kids, meal support several days a week, and assistance accessing much-needed supplemental resources. Christie began to see things from a new perspective. After talking with other resident families experiencing similar circumstances, she harnessed her anger into a new attitude of proactivity.

The family leaned in, experiencing and appreciating the impact of what makes Brent’s Place a refuge for so many. The trio became familiar faces in the halls, courtyard, and common spaces. Tabitha blossomed despite tough circumstances as her health improved, taking music lessons and building friendships with other kids like herself. “It’s made such a difference,” Christie observes. “Tabitha doesn’t feel she’s alone… because she’s not. She’s been able to be her most authentic self here at Brent’s Place.”

With Tabitha’s health now stable, her family is looking ahead to what comes after Brent’s Place. Finding an apartment is first on the to-do list, an exciting prospect for everyone. “It’s not just a tunnel anymore,” Christie says of their journey, “there’s a light at the end of it. Even with cancer, we got out of a really bad place . . . and that’s because of Brent’s Place.”


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