A new mother, a new father and their adorable baby boy. A hospital, a doctor and joyful wishes.
“Congratulations, Mom,” the doctor said. “I had a little bit of skepticism at the beginning that you were going to make it through.”
“It was not easy,” said Emily Fletcher, clearly exhausted by the long day.
The scene wasn’t typical. Hunter doesn’t deliver babies. He is a radiation oncologist at the Kirkland hospital’s Halvorson Cancer Center.
They were there for Emily’s 33rd radiation treatment to battle glioblastoma multiforme, the most aggressive type of brain cancer. Her brain tumor was found after she suffered a seizure in the shower Feb. 3. Baby Harrison was born Feb. 5, six weeks early, by Caesarean section. His mom’s brain surgery and cancer treatments had to happen as soon as possible.
Monday was her last treatment for a while. In a month, chemotherapy will start again. With their plump and healthy baby in tow, they have been driving to Kirkland five days a week for radiation since mid-March. And Emily has been on daily chemo medication.
There is more. Life handed Emily one cruel challenge on top of another. The 32-year-old suffers from cerebral palsy and has needed a wheelchair nearly all her life. She has always known pain.
The condition is the result of difficulties before birth, including fetal strokes after her mother went into labor. She had multiple surgeries in childhood.
Emily is tough and brave. She gets severe headaches. Across the top of her bald head is an ear-to-ear scar from surgery to remove the tumor. Her face is puffy from steroids, part of her treatment. Fighting for her life as her baby thrives, she is upbeat and has a quick sense of humor.
“I have a lot to live for. I have a brand new baby,” she said at home recently in their two-bedroom apartment.
Weak from treatments, she has trouble lifting Harrison, now 3 months old and 10-plus pounds. She can hold him while seated in her wheelchair. With a mother’s tender touch, she reaches out to rock his infant carrier when he starts to fuss. She talks to him gently and echoes his baby noises.
Her type of cerebral palsy is spastic quadriplegia. Abnormally stiff “high-tone” muscles make movement difficult. “Everything is so tight it bends bones,” she said, demonstrating how she can’t fully extend her arms. Her legs are also bowed.
None of that stopped her from graduating from Everett’s Jackson High School in 2000, or from earning two degrees at Puget Sound Christian College. It was there she met Daniel Fletcher, a fellow student. Also 32, he works in mechanical insulation and is a Local 7 union apprentice in the trade. His current job is on a Boeing construction project in Everett.
Together since 2002, they were married in Jamaica on Nov. 2, 2011. Pictures from that happy day show Daniel carrying his bride on the beach. Her long brown hair is flowing.
“We always planned to have a family,” Emily said.
She felt very ill while expecting Harrison but thought it was because of pregnancy. Then came the night of Feb. 3, “the scariest moment of this whole thing,” Daniel said. It was about 8 p.m. when Emily had the seizure. She uses a shower chair, but fell, was unconscious and bleeding from where she hit her head.
Daniel called 911. At Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, a scan discovered the mass in her brain. She was transferred to EvergreenHealth where her obstetrician is based. Harrison, four-and-a-half pounds at birth, spent about three weeks in the Kirkland hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
On Feb. 9, Dr. Ali Naini, a neurosurgeon, performed a craniotomy at EvergreenHealth. During the six-hour surgery, the tumor — 2 centimeters by 4 centimeters — was removed from the front left side of Emily’s brain.
She came home Feb. 18. Harrison was released from the hospital a week later.
“The brain tumor messed with my head,” Emily said. She has trouble reading, or quickly thinking of words she’s trying to say.
Dr. Hunter said those cognitive problems should improve. They have two causes. What’s known as “chemo brain,” which fogs memory and thinking, gets “better and better” after treatment, Hunter said. “And the tumor took out part of the brain.” The good news is the brain’s ability to “rewire itself,” he said.
As they fight for Emily’s life, the Fletchers face staggering medical bills.
Because he was new on his job, Daniel said his health insurance hadn’t kicked in when Harrison was born. Their bill for the neonatal unit alone is $30,000, “all out of pocket,” Daniel said. With rent, student loans and EvergreenHealth’s request that they pay the bill within a year, they feel overwhelmed.
An online GoFundMe account has been set up by Sarah Guenzler, a friend who went to Marysville’s Marshall Elementary School with Emily. The effort, with a goal of $75,000, had raised $3,580 by late last week.
“She’s just so positive. She has always had a good sense of humor,” said Guenzler, who lives in Marysville. And Daniel, “he’s the nicest guy ever. He rushes home from work and grabs the baby. He never complains.”
Emily doesn’t complain, either. She sees no point in asking, “Why me?”
“I don’t know that there really is an answer to that,” she said. “You just have to keep going.”
Entering the radiation oncology area of EvergreenHealth, there’s a sign that reads, “Where hope lives.”
Hunter, the radiation oncologist, gave the Fletchers cause for hope after Monday’s last treatment. Emily had with her the custom mesh mask worn during treatments to position her precisely for the radiation beam.
Sensitive to light and sound after radiation, she declined to strike a gong in the hallway. It was donated by another patient, meant to provide a small way to celebrate. “I cannot. It’s too loud,” she said.
The Fletchers’ reason to celebrate came in the doctor’s encouraging words.
“This is a big deal,” Hunter said. “I have hope for long-term survival.”
Historically, survival rates for glioblastoma multiforme have been “dreadful,” he said. The game-changer, Hunter said, has been the chemotherapy drug temozolomide, a pill with the trade name Temodar. “Before that drug, there was not much hope at all,” he said. With it, he said, nearly a third of patients with Emily’s type of brain cancer become “longer-term survivors.”
Emily feels she was strengthened by her struggles with cerebral palsy — childhood surgeries, a wheelchair and being different. “You can’t do anything about it, so you just keep going forward,” she said. “That’s something I learned growing up.”
One aspect of her cerebral palsy treatments may have increased her risk of brain cancer. Hunter said that especially with children, CT scans, which deliver ionizing radiation, have been found to increase the rates of “brain events.” Patients or parents should ask if a CT scan is truly necessary, he said, suggesting that an MRI — magnetic resonance imaging — is safer.
“We’ve been dealt a bad card, but you’ve played it well,” Hunter told the Fletchers.
It isn’t over. After a month off treatment, chemo will start again. There will be scans to see if the medicine has worked a miracle.
Turning to Emily’s husband, the doctor said, “Daniel, you’ve just been great. And I think you’ve married pretty well.”
Then, in his quiet way, the new dad helped his wife to the hospital cafeteria. He heated a bottle in a microwave, fed their baby and drove his family home through afternoon traffic.
“We always made a pretty good team,” Emily said.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
How to help
Donations to help with medical bills for Emily Fletcher and her newborn son may be made at the GoFundMe website: www.gofundme.com/emilyfletcher.