Commmunity Champion Spotlight
A Visit with a Friends of Karen Family
Gwen loves kindergarten, tap dance, and ballet. Having spent months in the hospital, she used to think she’d be a nurse when she grew up. But now that she is back in school full-time, she has decided instead to become a teacher.
Gwen was only two months old when she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Her parents, Brian and Cathleen, were setting up a birthday party for her older sister, when they noticed that Gwen’s face looked swollen and bruised. They cancelled the party and raced to the E.R.
“We were told they’d have to keep her in the hospital,” recalls Brian. “We figured two weeks in the hospital, then she’ll be an outpatient, we’ll be fine.”
The hospital introduced Gwen’s parents to Marla, a Friends of Karen social worker, who described the support services the organization could offer. “I said no thanks,” Brian recalls. “I wasn’t thinking that we were a family in need.”
But when he learned that Gwen would need 48 weeks of treatment, Brian reconsidered. Friends of Karen stepped in to help pay for the lodging, gas and meals that allowed both parents to stay close to their sick daughter. Due to complications, the 48 weeks turned into a year and a half. Marla made sure that the family was part of Friends of Karen’s gift program, which provided birthday and holiday presents for the two girls.
“That was just amazing,” says Cathleen. “The kids enjoyed that so much, it really made them feel special.”
There were rough stretches. Gwen spent weeks in the pediatric ICU with pneumocystic pneumonia, followed by seizures. With her lungs weakened from the pneumonia, she weathered a four-month bout of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a common infection in children that can be serious when there are other health issues. “We almost lost her,” says Brian.
Still, Gwen completed treatment before she turned two. Ten months later, she relapsed. In October 2007 she received a bone marrow transplant. Friends of Karen returned to help the family as Gwen began
“Friends of Karen is not a one-time ‘thank-you-we’re-done’ organization. They’re there for your child, for your family, throughout treatment, for as long as it takes,” says Brian. “It’s not ‘Here’s five hundred dollars, that’s it.’ It’s ‘Let us help make your holidays brighter.’ It’s ‘Your child’s birthday is coming up. Here’s something special for her.’ The organization is there to help in big ways, but also there to help in small ways. That’s what makes it a great organization.”
As for Gwen, she’s keeping up with her kindergarten class. She is small for her age, but she devours picture books in the Biscuit series and loves playing with her sister and brother. “Overall she’s happy,” says Brian. “She does everything that a normal six-year-old child can do – and that’s amazing."