The healing power of touch. It’s a phrase we hear often. Maybe it’s even cliché. But not to Stephen and Naomi Thornton. Not when a hug helped save your daughter’s life.
September 20, 2016 started out just like any other day when you have three children under 6 and two working parents. “Hustle and bustle to get three kids ready and out the door to daycare and to sitters and to school,” recalls Stephen. Oh, and Emily needs to be dressed in her tutu because she has ballet.
“Naomi and I started our work day. Everything was normal,” says Stephen. But that’s when life changed on a dime.
At Emily’s daycare, her teacher Miss Barbara scooped her up for her morning hug, tutu and all. And felt a bulge in the three-year-old’s side.
The concerned teacher called Naomi, who instantly thought, “That’s not normal.” After an exam, their pediatrician sent them to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta (CHOA) for more tests. And still, Naomi was thinking, “We’ll be in and out. They’ll give us something. Some medicine. That’ll take care of it and we’ll be on with our day and on with our lives.”
Instead, 24-hours later, after tests and scans and an overnight in the hospital, the Thorntons were unbelievably hearing that Emily, their completely healthy, happy, playing, still-not-sick daughter, had stage three kidney cancer. A massive tumor on her right kidney extending into her heart.
“I think we were at the lowest of our lows as parents at that point,” says Stephen. “You never, ever imagine your child getting cancer.”
Emily was diagnosed with a Wilms kidney tumor, a type of tumor that primarily attacks children her age. Treatment is commonly surgery and chemotherapy. Emily was transferred to the Egelston campus of CHOA where the Sibley Heart Center is also located.
Within little more than a day, she started to show signs of being ill. “She started having fevers and feeling badly. So it went from a normal day to downgrading really fast, in about 24-48 hours,” says Naomi.
A biopsy was done to confirm the diagnosis and the oncologists developed her treatment plan. Two weeks in the hospital included surgery to install the port to deliver the expected 20 -24 weeks of chemo. At that point, the doctors anticipated that Emily’s treatment would also include a heart surgery about mid-way through the chemo regimen to remove the tumor from her heart. It would be bypass surgery. “As parents, we are thinking about them having to cool our child down to slow her heart to perform this major surgery,” says Stephen.
“We started really relying on our faith. Praying constantly. We also had great community outreach from our friends and family,” explains Stephen. “Our church was huge,” adds Naomi.
But after 12 weeks of chemo, something remarkable happened. The tumor retracted out of her heart. “The miracle of this whole thing is that it had not stuck to the walls of the heart. It was almost like a weed that had grown up into her heart creeping in, and the chemo just shrunk it back down.”
“The surgeon said she had never seen anything like that,” says Naomi.
The Sibley Heart team was canceled for the surgery, which became a far simpler procedure to remove Emily’s diseased kidney.
Stephen and Naomi count many miracles in Emily’s journey. She stayed healthy the whole time and never had counts too low to accept new treatment, keeping her recovery on track.
In the journey are moments to cherish, say Stephen and Naomi. The love, support and help from family and friends ranks high, and this heartfelt and insightful reaction from big brother, Kyle, then only 6. “He started bawling when he found out. He never worried that she wasn’t going to make it, but he was worried that she would be sad about losing her hair. Mommy, she’s going to be so sad. Cause she’s our girly girl. She likes dresses and tutus and hair bows.'”
But through it all, say her parents, their “girly girl” exhibited an iron will and an indomitable spirit. She’s now only four, they note, and likely won’t remember much of this. “But we’ll use it to remind her how strong she is. We’ll tell her to not ever forget that she is here for a reason,” says Naomi.
The experience, of course, changed them all. “We just view life totally different,” explains Naomi. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, but it’s been a blessing because it’s made us value what’s important and cherish the time that we have.”
Now, with treatment finished and clean scans, a bright future includes a promised and much-anticipated trip to Disney World for the family. That trip was on Emilys mind on her last day of chemo as she rang the bell to mark her last treatment.
“Are we done?” she asked.
“We’re done,” said Stephen and Naomi.
“Good. Cuz I’m outta here.” And with that, said her parents, their shy little girl began chatting up people in the elevator. “I’m going to Disney World.”