“Abby takes me wherever she goes. We go to karate class together. We help each other fall asleep. And since Abby got sick, I even go to the hospital with her. We found lots of friends there who make Abby feel better.”
If Abby Agarwal’s doll, Pinky, could talk, that’s what it would say. Pinky has been by the seven-year-old girl’s side nearly every day of her life. They’re like best friends.
When Abby started having recurrent fevers, she met more friends at Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital. It’s the community’s only children’s hospital and the only Lehigh Valley-area hospital that cares for kids with cancer. These friends helped save her life.
A scary diagnosis
Abby’s fevers would come and go every few weeks. The first episode occurred in March 2018. “Her fevers were as high as 104 degrees,” says Abby’s father, Prateek, “We were scared.” Without a clear diagnosis of the cause of Abby’s fevers, a bone marrow biopsy was performed. The results: Abby had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (B-ALL).
Meet Abby’s friend, Dr. Bautista
“Diagnosing B-cell leukemia is usually straightforward once the patient shows symptoms,” says pediatric hematologist oncologist Felipe Bautista, MD, with LVPG Pediatric Hematology Oncology–Cedar Crest and Children’s Hospital. “Abby was different in that her blood work was almost normal and her symptoms didn’t get worse with time.”
What is leukemia?
The most common type of cancer in children is acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of white blood cells. Abnormal cells form in bone marrow and outnumber healthy cells, leading to low blood counts, pain, fever and other serious problems.
The good news: It’s curable
The day after Abby was diagnosed, she started treatment. “Today, we cure close to 98 percent of children with low-risk B-ALL leukemia and 80 to 85 percent of all childhood cancers in the U.S.,” Bautista says.
“We knew the doctors and they knew Abby, all treatments could take place here, and it was a comfort having the Children’s ER right here for the times she had a late-night fever,” says Prateek.
Children can tolerate aggressive cancer treatments more than adults. The first phase of Abby’s treatment involved aggressive intravenous chemotherapy in the hospital. During phase two, Abby visited the hospital weekly for treatment. Eventually, Abby was able to take medication orally at home. That continues today. In total, Abby’s treatment will last about two years. Every step of the way, Abby and Pinky had another friend by their side.
Receiving care near home, instead of Philadelphia, was important to Abby’s family. “We knew the doctors and they knew Abby, all treatments could take place here, and it was a comfort having the Children’s ER right here for the times she had a late-night fever,” says Prateek.
Meet Abby’s friend, Devon
“I am in charge of all the fun things.” That’s how Devon Gulick describes her role as a child-life specialist, a health care professional who works with children and families to help them cope with the challenges of hospitalization and illness. The child-life program at Children’s Hospital is the only one in the community.
To help explain cancer treatments to Abby, Gulick used a “Chemo Duck.” Dressed in hospital pajamas, the cuddly stuffed animal has a port. “It helps kids to see an animal that’s like them. They understand that a port is important and will help them get chemotherapy safely and with less pokes throughout their treatment,” Gulick says.
Every time Abby needed care that made her scared, Gulick was there. She uses video games and other distractions to help kids through procedures, sometimes preventing the need for anesthesia. If a child is sedated, Gulick talks to parents during the procedure to help them understand what is happening. She also plays and has fun with kids during their hospitalization.
As Abby’s last treatment draws near, she continues to inspire friends and family. In karate class, she is strong enough to break boards, diligent enough to nearly have an orange belt and passionate enough to recite her favorite karate creed: “I am here to develop in a positive manner and avoid anything that may reduce my mental concentration or physical health.”
A joyous sound
On Nov. 15, 2020, Abby will receive her last treatment. As most cancer survivors do at Children’s Hospital, she’ll triumphantly ring a bell to proclaim that she is cancer-free. Prateek says, “We can’t wait to ring that bell.” And when she does, all her Children’s Hospital friends will be there. Pinky too.