Yvette Harmey cannot hide her emotion as she’s mentally transported back to when her three-year-old daughter, Pippa, was diagnosed with leukaemia on 24 December. Three years ago now yet still so fresh.
“It all started with fatigue, really bad fatigue, and high temperatures,” Yvette begun.
The Launceston mum had been taking care of the poorly toddler between decorating the house, cooking, clandestine present wrapping and school holiday play-dates for her and Dave’s older girls, seven-year-old Georgia and four-year-old Alexis.
“Those 10 days leading up to Christmas were really busy,” she continued. “I went to finish the Christmas shopping and left the girls with their grandparents. I came home and found out that Pip had been asleep for 5 hours, which my father-in-law was pretty happy about but really worried me.”
It was a stark contrast to the oh-so active three year old who just days earlier, at Georgia’s birthday party, was tearing around a roller skating rink on her scooter for two hours straight.
“Sleeping for so long during the day just wasn’t like her,” said Yvette. “I was actually so worried I took her to the hospital. But after looking her over, they sent us home thinking it was only a virus or urinary tract infection.”
Like so many of us at Christmas, Yvette was racing to get through a massive to-do list with the reward of a family feast at the end of it.
It was now Christmas Eve and one window of opportunity that was quickly closing was the chance to get the girls’ annual Santa photo at Meadow Mews Plaza.
December 2015. L-R: Pip, Georgia and Alexis.
So that morning, when Pippa woke up with a blood nose, it was just another thing they’d need to work through.
Pippa complained about putting on the loose sundress screaming out, “That hurts my tummy!”
“I remember getting the girls down to the shopping center and putting Pip on Santa’s knee,” said Yvette. “I had to wipe the blood from her nose between shots - it just didn’t stop all day.”
“I knew it wasn’t right, but the hospital had assured me she only had a virus, so I kept on pushing forward to get everything done.”
That photo, taken Christmas Eve 2015, is at the top of this page.
Within 24-hours all the little seemingly innocuous symptoms, bleeding nose, pale skin, lethargy, pain and curious sores on her legs became sinister signs of childhood cancer, threatening to rob the Harmeys of a precious family member.
For eight anxious hours, the family’s fate was uncertain. Specialist treatment had to be started immediately, either a 30-minute flight away in Hobart or interstate to Melbourne.
Dave and Yvette grappled with the logistics of both scenarios. One thing was for sure, Georgia and Alexis were about to wake up on Christmas Day to find their world had been turned upside down.
“At 8am the hospital staff told me it was time to go to the airport,” said Yvette. “We were going to Hobart so at least Dave could drive down later in the day.”
“Leaving so quickly meant I couldn’t see my other girls on Christmas Day. Actually, I didn’t end up seeing them for several days.”
Before Pippa could start chemotherapy, the sores on her legs had to be treated. What had looked like little pimples on the surface were actually the signs of a bacterial infection that could prove deadly. After being on antibiotics for four days it was finally safe to start the medical intervention that would ultimately save her life.
As part of Pippa’s treatment, steroids were prescribed to help destroy the cancer cells and make the chemotherapy more effective. The Oncologist explained the side effects.
Along with fits of anger and disfiguring bloating, Pippa would lose her hair and be prone to diarrhea and vomiting. Any high temperatures would necessitate an urgent dash to Emergency.
“The changes that took place in her little body came on so suddenly and dramatically Pippa didn’t know how to support her own weight,” recalled Yvette.
Pip's stomach was so enlarged the hospital ordered x-rays to check it was just fluid.
“I remember one time, we were allowed to go home for a couple of days for Alexis’ birthday,” said Yvette. “It was really obvious when we were there how much the fluid was affecting Pip. I was watching her play and she couldn’t even walk up the four little steps in our backyard,” said Yvette.
“And the steroids made her so angry,” said Yvette. “Although she’s usually dad’s girl, she directed it all at Dave. As soon as she’d see him she’d scream and wouldn’t even allow him to be in the hospital room.”
Like many children, Pippa lost her hair as a side effect of treatment.
After a month of intensive treatment at Royal Hobart Hospital, the family was able to return to Launceston where Pip had weekly intravenous chemotherapy that eventually went down to a monthly maintenance dose.
Life went on that way for 27 months until Pip finished treatment in March 2018 when she had her port (a resource implanted to administer medications) removed. Now she only has to have monthly finger pricks and Oncology appointments at the local hospital.
“I guess over time they’ll get less frequent,” said Yvette. “But she’ll need to have regular Oncology appointments until she’s 18.”
The family celebrate a milestone.
Looking for bruises
“We had no choice but to sign her life away at the time to save her,” Yvette said trying to recall the daunting list of long-term and late effects they were told Pip might suffer as a result of her treatment.
There is one she can’t forget.
“I remember them saying that she’d have a big chance of getting a secondary cancer later in life,” Yvette said.
There is an even more immediate fear that lingers the back of both parent’s minds every day. Relapse. While Pip has finished treatment, August 2019 is when the family will truly be able to breathe a sigh of relief and perhaps when Yvette will stop covertly checking her daughter’s body for bruising, a common symptom of leukaemia.
“If she were to relapse, we would know what we were putting her and everyone else through,” said Yvette choking back the tears. “The first time around you don’t have any idea what you’re doing.”
“Apparently the first 18 months is when most relapses happen,” said Yvette. “But I feel quite confident we’ve beaten this.”
These days Pip is all smiles.
“I’m trying to live each day happily and not dwell on what we’ve been through. There’s no point worrying about the what ifs.”
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