Don Christie and his wife, Michelle, knew something wasn't right with their
Don Christie and his wife, Michelle,
youngest daughter, Michaela.
On March 20 last year, the Christie family drove to Columbus to watch two of their nieces, Courtney and Ashley Christie, play in the Division II state basketball semifinals for Kettering Alter High School at Value City Arena.
"Michaela was running a high fever on and off and had a lot of pain in her bones," says Don, an assistant principal at Oak Harbor Middle School. "She had been sick on and off. We're driving down there and every time we'd drive over a bump, like railroad tracks or something, she would start screaming. We got to Columbus and we had to carry her from the parking lot to the arena."
One day before, a family doctor had told Don and Michelle that Michaela simply had a viral infection and to just let it run its course.
"My wife said, 'This is not a virus...I want a blood test,' " Don recalls.
Michaela, 6, one of Don and Michelle's three adopted children, had a blood test taken at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center before the family headed to Columbus. But something still wasn’t right while at the state tournament.
"We just knew this wasn't Michaela and that there was something wrong," Michelle says. "She was so tired, and she's always been very energetic."
Michelle took Michaela back for another blood test the Monday after the game, then took the little girl in for a kindergarten screening at school.
"I came home," Michelle says, "and within minutes the doctor called and said, 'You need come back to St. V's.' Something was wrong with the blood work and they wanted her to see a specialist. That's when Don and I knew it was something more than viral."
Two days later, Michaela was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.
ALL is a form of leukemia, or cancer of the white blood cells characterized by excess lymphoblasts.
It is a condition whereby malignant, immature white blood cells continuously
multiply and are overproduced in the bone marrow. ALL causes damage and death by crowding out normal cells in the bone marrow and by spreading (metastasizing) to other organs.
ALL, which is not transferrable, is most common in childhood with a peak incidence at 2-5 years of age, and another peak in old age. The overall cure rate for children today is 85 percent.
Don was in his school office when he received a phone call from the doctor.
"He said, 'You need to get to St. V's right now,'” Don says, adding that he and Michelle had already been gathering information about leukemia.
"We started to think in that direction," Don says. "Michaela is bi-racial and we adopted her when she was four weeks old, so we were checking online for sickle cell. All the symptoms matched up with sickle cell. When I got the call that day from the doctor, I was reading up on leukemia on my laptop."
Michaela had many of the symptoms associated with ALL, such as general weakness and fatigue, anemia ("Her gums were almost white," Don says), unexplained fever, weight loss, unexplained bruising, and an enlarged spleen.
Although Don and Michelle finally had an explanation for Michaela's symptoms, it was difficult for both parents to accept.
"I'm not a very emotional person," Michelle says, "but that's when I broke down. You just hear 'cancer' and you just immediately panic, like this really isn't happening. You get bombarded with information instantly and you try to digest everything. The next day we met in their office and they told us about the two different types of leukemia. She got the mildest - or standard - type with ALL."
Don adds, "That was the longest night of our lives. When you hear 'leukemia' said to you, your mind automatically goes to the worst. It was like somebody just punched us in the gut."
Michaela soon began undergoing treatment, which initially consisted of hooking up a port (needle) under her skin that distributes medicine throughout her body. Light chemotherapy treatments soon followed.
"They put the port in the first day, right below her left collarbone, right above her heart and did the first chemo treatment," Don says. "My wife is crying and Michaela looks at her and says, 'You don't need to cry, mommy, it will be OK.' Michaela has been going through it like everything to her is positive, everything is good, no matter what she has to go through."
Michaela began the most intense phase of her chemotherapy at St. Vincent on Oct. 1 and continued chemo for one month. During that ordeal, Michaela's body weight dropped from 43 pounds to almost 28 pounds, Don says.
"They blast the immune system, and that was hard to watch," he says. "She was getting chemo (previously), but it didn't hit her like this one did. She lost a lot of weight, she lost her hair and didn't have a lot of energy. We look back at that and she looks like a different kid now than she did then."
Doctors told Don and Michelle that Michaela will have to undergo chemo treatments at least once a month through May 2011.
"They have this down to an exact science as far as the number of treatments and number of days," Don says. "For girls, the treatment protocol is shorter than it is for boys. We haven't had any setbacks as far as any drugs that have been administered, so we've stayed right on schedule with that."
Oncologists Dr. Rama Jasty and Dr. Brenda Kitchen are overseeing Michaela's treatment at St. Vincent. As far as the Christies are concerned, Drs. Jasty and Kitchen and the entire hospital staff were sent straight down from heaven to take care of their little girl.
"I can't speak highly enough about St. V's," Michelle says. "They've been phenomenal. They do become part of your family. You get to be on a first-name basis with them and they are very supportive. When Michaela has treatments, she asks for Pam, our nurse practitioner, instead of me. They really care about your family."
Basketball on hold
When Michaela first started feeling ill, Don, 44, had just finished his second season as Oak Harbor's varsity boys basketball coach. He was in the process of rebuilding a program that he and his older brother, Dan, a broker for UBS near Dayton, led to the 1983 Class AA state championship game.
Their father, Dave Christie, coached that team and built the Rockets into a respected program. Don was hoping to follow suit, but he resigned as Oak Harbor's coach last spring in order to devote more time to his family. He has no regrets.
"It was probably one of the easiest decisions I've made," Don says. "Your family has to be first, no question. My wife was even saying, 'We can still try to do this.' I said no. She said I could do whatever I wanted to do."
Michelle says she did, in fact, tell Don that if he wanted to continue to coach, that was OK with her. The Christies have been married for more than 18 years.
"I thought him still coaching might be a nice diversion," says Michelle, who is an attorney in Oak Harbor. "It was like, slow down and don't make any rash decisions until we see what we're dealing with. I like (Don coaching), too. He's gone a lot and we miss him, but we enjoy the game and it does become a part of your family."
Everything is pretty much back to normal in the Christie family. Don and Michelle's other two children, Ryan, 10, and Olivia, 8, are healthy and attend Rocky Ridge Elementary School along with their younger sister. Michaela started kindergarten the first week of November and is doing fine.
Don is even coaching again - Ryan's fourth-grade basketball team - and says he's having a blast.
"What's amazing is that he's 10 and a lot of people think he's from my blood," Don gushes. "He's aggressive, he dives for the ball ... people say he's a little Don Christie out there."
During Michaela's early treatment for ALL, the Christies quickly realized how lucky they are.
"You find out who your real friends and real supporters are," Don says. "We've had incredible support from family and friends, and the people we've been involved with at St. V's have just been incredible."
Michelle says the Christie family is now more tight-knit than ever.
"It's definitely brought our family together," she says. "The kids were uniquely close to begin with, and they are now even more so. You do appreciate the smaller things a little bit more. It could have been taken away so easily."