Healthy You - Every Day

Heart of a Fighter

Dakota Ann beats cancer at 2½ years old and continues to thrive

They say it takes a village to raise a child. Shari Ann Almeida knows this to be true.  

Almeida’s daughter, Dakota Ann, was a rough-and-tumble infant who first stood on her own at 3 months old. So, when she developed a few small, faint green bruises on the right side of her body, first-time mom Almeida thought nothing of it. At 6 months old, Dakota was teething, so a low-grade fever didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

In reality, these were signs of a life-changing diagnosis. Blood work ordered at a routine well-visit confirmed that something was wrong. Almeida was faced with making the first of many tough decisions in Dakota’s fight with pediatric cancer.

Philadelphia or Lehigh Valley? They could travel for care or stay close to home.

“We went right to Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital,” Almeida says. “After her diagnosis, my employer at the time wanted to send her in a helicopter to Philadelphia and I told them, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving her side.’”

“When you are told your child could die, nothing is more important than being together as a family. Thanks to Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital, we could remain close to home during Dakota’s fight.”

Access to pediatric oncology experts close to home

After Dakota was diagnosed with cancer in April 2019, the pediatric cancer team at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital worked together to provide the most effective and personalized care for Dakota. The team includes pediatric oncologists, oncology nurses, child-life specialists, social workers and pharmacists who specialize in caring for children with cancer. Kids who need lifesaving infusions, including chemotherapy, receive treatment at the Children’s Cancer Center, which is designed for and dedicated to kids.

The Children’s Cancer Center at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital is also part of the Children’s Oncology Group, a National Cancer Institute coalition of more than 230 children’s hospitals that provides patients with access to the latest therapies, including clinical trials.

Lifesaving care with a healthy dose of sunshine, smiles and laughter

Dakota and her family spent long days and nights at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital during her cancer treatment. There were some days they arrived in the Children’s Cancer Center when it opened and didn’t leave until it closed.

When Jacob Troutman, DO, pediatric oncologist with LVPG Pediatric Hematology Oncology, joined the care team, he made an immediate impact on Dakota Ann.

“He went above and beyond to make happiness in a place where there is none. He went out of his way to create sunshine in a place where there wasn’t any,” Almeida says. “I watched him create smiles and laughter over and over again.”

Angels rally behind Dakota Ann

It wasn’t just her doctors that made all the difference for Dakota.

“At one point in her treatment, Dakota refused to eat,” Almeida says. “The coffee shop at Lehigh Valley Hospital–Cedar Crest sent smoothies to her room because they knew she wouldn’t refuse a smoothie.”

What may sound like a small gesture was often the difference between staying in the hospital another night and going home.

“From the moment we walked in the door, everyone knew Dakota by name,” Almeida says. “When you live a life like ours, nothing is more important than having a support system who knows your child by name and treats her like a person, not just a cancer diagnosis.”

“God constantly sends me angels and they always appear in Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital,” says Almeida. “The nurses – I can’t say enough about the nurses. They helped me find my voice as a young, brand-new mom. I learned how to be a mom in the hospital.”

Bell ringing celebrates the end of a long fight

The fight against pediatric cancer is not for the faint of heart.

“When you are told your child could die, nothing is more important than being together as a family,” says Almeida. “Thanks to Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital, we could remain close to home during Dakota’s fight.”

Dakota finished treatment with her last dose of chemotherapy on April 27, 2021.

The finality bell is rung three times on the last day of cancer treatment. Once for love, once for hope and once for courage.

Two years after receiving her cancer diagnosis, Dakota Ann and her parents visited Children’s Cancer Center not for treatment, but to ring the finality bell and celebrate being in remission.

On any given day back in 2021, you could find 2 ½ year-old Dakota tumbling on mats, balancing on the beam or jumping in the bounce house. She absolutely loved gymnastics. You could also catch her reading books, painting and coloring. She’s tough and active, and rocks princess outfits like nobody’s business.

“She’s the coolest person in the world,” Almeida says. “She really is.”

Life in remission

Today, Dakota is two years in remission and she’s absolutely thriving. Turning 5 in October 2023, Dakota loves playing with her friends, riding her bike (or scooter), and of course, gymnastics. She is tough and active, and rocks princess outfits like it’s nobody’s business.

“Two and a half years ago, we prayed we’d see the days we are living now,” Almeida says. “And we wouldn’t have made it to where we are if it weren’t for the incredible pediatric cancer team at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital. Because of them, Dakota is still here, and our gratitude knows no bounds.”

Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital

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