Susan and Zoe - Mother Daughter Warriors
The ancient superstition that bad things come in 3’s has stuck with us through the ages.
Nine years ago, our family was hit with a powerful 3, and while these life-changing events were challenging, they allowed us to experience a sense of gratitude and appreciation for life.
In early 2008 our son Luke came home from preschool with Pink Eye. Luke had a baby sister at the time, Zoe. She had been a smiling baby, a fantastic sleeper, a great eater and just a happy baby since she was born. As we know, pink eye is very contagious. Zoe’s eye began to appear a little pink and I decided to take her to the pediatrician. The doctors appointment did not reveal Zoe had pink eye. We left with a diagnosis of an ear infection and the doctor hearing a heart murmur in her five month old heart. Five long stressful and worried days passed and my husband Jeff and I took the doctor’s advice and went to see a pediatric cardiologist. We truly believed that this was going to be nothing. Zoe was growing everyday and showed no signs of discomfort. We left that appointment changed forever. Zoe, our little girl had heart complications. She was diagnosed with a severe coarctation of the aorta, a ventricular septal defect (“VSD”) and a mitral valve abnormality. In simple English, her aorta was 1cm in diameter where it connected to her heart and quickly narrowed to 1mm. If that wasn’t enough, she had a small hole in her ventricle. Shocked, stunned, dazed and floating outside our bodies, we were totally blown away with this news. We knew Zoe needed open heart surgery as soon as possible as things could take a turn for the worse quickly.
Several tests later, Zoe’s diagnosis was confirmed. We met with Dr. Vaughn Starnes at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. He looked at Zoe’s test results and said her surgery needed to happen immediately. They had a cancellation for the following Monday and we took it. There was a chance Zoe would need to receive additional blood during her surgery. We wanted to be prepared for the worst, and have an ample supply of blood ready if needed. It is truly amazing to see what people are capable of when there is someone in need. The word spread about Zoe needing blood, and the response was overwhelming. Friends, acquaintances, colleagues and even strangers, came to the hospital with no notice to donate blood to our little 6-month old girl.
The morning of March 2nd, Zoe’s surgery began. With only 14 minutes on bypass – Dr. Starnes repaired her heart to its current PERFECT state. He was able to use her own tissue to repair the coarctation and the VSD. His team worked quickly and with such precision, and Zoe was in the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) recovering within two hours. It was the best possible outcome. The surgery was performed to perfection. The doctors and staff were some of the best in the country and we felt Zoe was in the best care. The first night in the PICU she pulled out her own feeding tube, her chest tube was removed the following day and by noon on the 3rd day – Zoe was asleep in her crib at home. It was truly miraculous. Zoe healed extremely quickly and we fell back into the routine of everyday life parenting two small kids.
In 2010 we were thrown another curve ball. My new OB suggested that I should have a baseline mammogram at the age of 38. Of course, it took me a couple of months to make the appointment, and in October, I finally did it. Within days, the doctors called, asking me to come in so they could re-examine a few areas that concerned them.
After a surgical biopsy, on November 10th, I received the call. This is the call that no one wants to get. I had breast cancer. I couldn’t believe it. I was a mother of two little kids, Luke was 5 and Zoe was 2. How could this be happening? Not giving ourselves any time to digest the diagnosis, Jeff and I spent the next few weeks running from doctor to doctor to find the best medical team we could. On December 1, 2010, we made a life changing decision, one of the toughest I have had to make. I was going to receive a double mastectomy, and surgery was scheduled. The day before the surgery Jeff and I took the kids to Disneyland, so we could spend the day just the four of us at the “happiest place on earth”. It was a magical day. As the sun set, it was time to drive home and begin this FIGHT against Cancer.
The surgery was long and painful. The doctors concluded I had Stage 1 Breast Cancer. It was primarily in the ducts, but there were small areas of invasion. Luckily, it was contained and did not spread into my lymph nodes. However, it was triple positive, which meant it was estrogen receptor positive, progesterone receptor positive and HER2-positive. HER2, which stands for human epidermal growth factor receptor 2, means that the cancer cells produce more of a specific protein. We had a long visit with my oncologist and decided that chemotherapy was the best option because this type of cancer tends to grow and spread faster than others. It is particularly aggressive and usually requires additional treatment. She wanted me to take this miracle drug, Herceptin, that attacks the HER2 cells and could not be given without the chemo drugs.
In early 2011, I started my first round of chemo. I had six rounds of chemo, followed by multiple surgeries and finally finished off my treatment with 33 sessions of radiation therapy. I suffered from the typical side effects of treatment (hair loss, feeling nauseous and tired all the time, and more). To help the healing post surgeries, I was not able to lift anything above 10 pounds, so for 16 weeks (4 MONTHS) I was unable to pick Zoe up or carry her, this was the most difficult for me. We hit many additional bumps along with road with multiple infections, reactions, etc. – but we made it through.
Cancer is a full-time job, it takes over and invades all areas of your life. To say these years were challenging would be an understatement. My family was and has continued to be my rock – especially my son Luke. He kept a chart in his room, and each time I came home from chemo, he would run to his room, mark one treatment off, and run back to let me know it was almost over. He was waiting at the doorway with a huge smile and open arms, ready to give me the biggest hug, as I finished my 33rd radiation treatment. It was my husband and kids that got me out of bed every morning and made me keep fighting!
Number three happened when I was in the hospital recovering from my double mastectomy. I was being treated aggressively for an infection that had developed post-surgery. Jeff had gone home to see the kids and I wanted to give him an update. After not being able to reach him, he finally called and told me that everything was ok but that he and the kids had been in a terrible car accident and the car flipped over. Strangers who witnessed the accident unbuckled my kids from an upside car and took them to safety. A miracle occured that day, with all three of them walking away with only minor bumps and bruises from that accident.
It took me a long time to realize that there is a reason for everything. Even horrible things that may happen, there is a purpose for it all. I will never forget when we were checking out of Children’s Hospital, saying goodbye to some of the other families we had met while there. They looked at me with tears in their eyes and said: “Congrats, you are taking your baby home, take care of little Zoe”, and that is what we have done.
We know we can make it through anything. Zoe is a thriving 9-year old girl with a heart of gold. We call the scar on her chest her “lucky mark” because there is really no other way to describe it. We are all so lucky that she has a healthy and perfect heart. I am celebrating over 7 years of being cancer-free. I am here to grow old with my husband, to see my children grow and to experience all that life has in store for me.
I guess this is the part of the story where I am supposed to say that we are grateful for each and every moment, that we live each day to the fullest and that we know how precious life is.
While I wish I could say that is true all of the time, I can say that we do our best. We try to keep things in perspective and focus on what is truly important – that we all have the courage to be imperfect, that we allow ourselves to experience joy and that we remember that gratitude and kindness is what is important. While that often is not easy, I know that all that I have been through has not only made me a better person, but has reinforced the importance of surrounding myself with caring people and teaching my kids to be good and honest.
The THREE, these big bad three events that happened in our lives...I am reminded that along with the bad, there is a great deal of good. Our family got through some of the most difficult times and came out stronger and more resilient than ever. We fought the fight, never gave up hope and WE WON!