Sadie Sheldon was just being a kid, climbing a tree.
Straddling a branch, the 3-year-old lost her balance and fell 4 feet to the ground. She was knocked unconscious.
When she came to a moment later, everything seemed fine at first. But soon her parents, Erin and Kellen Sheldon, of Marysville, noticed troubling changes in their little girl.
They soon were given devastating news: that Sadie’s balance problems and other symptoms were the earliest signs of brain cancer.
As Sadie, now 4, undergoes treatment, her parents’ friends have organized a benefit called Sadie’s Night for Aug. 27. The benefit will be held at Palace Ballroom in Seattle. Proceeds will go to the Sheldon family and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
After the fall from the tree, the fun-loving little girl started to experience dizziness, headaches, light sensitivity and nausea. At first, doctors told the Sheldons it was post-concussion syndrome.
“We tried to make sure she didn’t hit her head, but she kept running into things,” Kellen Sheldon said. “We’d be at Costco and she’d walk right into a shopping cart. And it’s like, what is going on?”
After a particularly rough morning on July 4, Sadie was admitted to Seattle Children’s, where an MRI scan revealed she had medulloblastoma, a rapidly growing cancerous brain tumor. Four days later, at Harborview Medical Center, surgeons removed a mass the size of a golf ball from an area of the brain that controls balance, posture and complex motor functions.
Now she’s undergoing chemotherapy to kill any cancerous cells that weren’t removed in the surgery. She celebrated her fourth birthday in the hospital.
Medulloblastoma is the most common malignant brain tumor of childhood, accounting for about 20% of all pediatric brain tumors, according to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Between 250 and 500 children are diagnosed with medulloblastoma each year in the United States. Most medulloblastoma tumors are found in children younger than age 16, and they rarely occur in adults.
The tumors tend to spread to other parts of the brain and to the spinal cord. But Sadie’s cancer has not spread, which doctors tell the Sheldons gives her an 80% survival rate. Had the surgery taken place just a week later, the swelling and pressure in her head caused by the tumor could have led to permanent brain damage or death, doctors told them.
Erin Sheldon, 33, said she believes the tree fall may have been a blessing in disguise.
“Not to get religious, but I truly think an angel pushed her out of that tree,” she said. “I feel like there have been so many different miracles that have happened up until this point.”
Sadie’s symptoms were similar to a concussion, which made it difficult for doctors to diagnose her condition.
“Luckily, it was only a matter of months when she was misdiagnosed,” Erin Sheldon said. “I want to get the word out there for the signs and symptoms, even if it’s as simple as letting parents know to go with their gut.”
Kellen Sheldon, also 33, said his worst fear was that the tumor would be inoperable. The ordeal continues to teach him never to take his family for granted.
“Most of us go through our lives hearing about things like this, but you think, ‘That couldn’t happen to us,’” he said. “I have this new appreciation for the simple fact of us all being together.”
Erin and Kellen have done their best to restore normalcy in Sadie’s life, through playtime with her sisters, Stella, 7, and Scarlett, 1, going on walks and playing on her iPad. But there have been changes.
At home, Sadie must eat and take medicine with a feeding tube. She also suffers from posterior fossa syndrome, which causes neurological symptoms such as speech problems that can last for weeks, months or even years following surgery.
“They warned us that she may not talk for up to six months,” Erin Sheldon said. “When she was rolled back in for recovery, I leaned over and said, ‘Sadie, Mommy loves you.’ She said, ‘I know.’ In that instant, we knew she wasn’t going to be an extreme case.”
The fundraiser on Aug. 27 will feature small bites made by eight Seattle chefs, a silent auction, live music and a cash bar. The fundraiser is being put on by Daniel and Chelsey Cox, who are longtime friends of the Sheldons. Daniel Cox, 33, of Seattle, is one of the chefs. The goal is to raise $20,000 and build awareness of pediatric brain cancer.
“It’s honestly the least I can do because she’s just such an awesome little girl, and it sucks what she’s going through,” Cox said. “Everyone was willing to jump in and help out, whether they know the family or not.”
The Sheldons are amazed by the outpouring of support. They’ve been so moved that they’re looking for ways to support other families who are going through medical crises.
“It absolutely blows me away that all the people we have in our lives are so willing to rally around us for our child and allow us to be there for her and give her attention,” Erin Sheldon said. “You can’t ask for more in a time like this.”
Friends also made a GoFundMe page that has raised about $18,000 as of Friday. The money will help the Sheldons with living expenses, time needed off work and out-of-pocket medical costs.
The ordeal has had some lasting effects, causing Sadie to be aggressive, irritable and reclusive at times. Other times, she’s her normal silly, goofy and funny self.
She recently asked her mom if they could go back to the Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett. It’s her favorite place. The last time they went, she colored elephants in the art room.
“I was thinking we could go to the children’s museum and make more elephants,” she said.
Evan Thompson: 425-339-3427, firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ByEvanThompson.
If you go
Sadie’s Night, a benefit for 4-year-old Sadie Sheldon’s family and Seattle Children’s Hospital, is at 7 p.m. Aug. 27 at Palace Ballroom, 2100 Fifth Ave., Seattle. It will feature small bites, a silent auction, live music and a cash bar. Tickets are $50 each and include your first drink. Find Sadie’s Night on Facebook for more information.