Toddler's cancer battle keeps family hunkered at hospital
Published: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 12:23 p.m.
Two-year-old Bella Maloney's mother says her daughter's tumor is an aggressive, non-favorable type of cancer.
Kelly and John Maloney, both 28, have been living in and out of the Children's Hospital at Shands at the University of Florida since June, when they first took their daughter to the doctor for a chest cold and a slightly distended belly.
After a mid-morning X-ray on June 22, doctors found an abnormal growth — a 13-centimeter tumor that originated in Bella's adrenal gland, wrapped around her blood vessels and caused lesions on her liver.
Soon after Christmas, Bella's parents are hovering around their daughter in her hospital bed.
Bella, who is wearing a pink T-shirt and a sparkly Band-Aid on the top of her head, begins to squeal, her face smashing into itself as she opens her mouth to cry.
"Are you OK, honey?" her father says, his voice softening as he talks to her. "Do you want your puppy dog? You want your bed? OK, we'll put you in bed."
The parents work in tandem, untangling tubes while tucking the 2-year-old into her hospital crib. They cover her with a fleece rainbow blanket and tuck a Barney stuffed animal under her arm.
Bella gets quiet.
The normally outgoing toddler is recovering from neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor that develops in infants and children. She has undergone six rounds of chemotherapy, a surgery to remove the growth and months of discomfort during her treatment.
With her immune system depleted, Bella suffers from mucositis — an inflammation of the mucous lining in her digestive system that causes cold-sore-like lesions in her mouth and all the way down her gastrointestinal tract.
The little girl has not eaten in seven days. She survives on a nutrient drip bag her parents call her "meat and potatoes."
Bella takes nearly a dozen medications to treat her symptoms and pain. She has been through multiple blood transfusions while at the hospital, sometimes multiple a day.
"There's days that you want to pull your hair out because she screams hours upon hours in pain and upset," her father says, acknowledging that three to four hours of sleep is considered a restful night.
Bella's mother says the family is beginning to exhaust their treatment options at Shands.
"Once it's gone, you just hope that it stays gone, because once it comes back it's a whole new battle. [Shands has] pretty much told us that if it comes back, there's nothing that they can do for her," she says.
Bella's parents take turns watching over their daughter as she sleeps. With another 10-year-old daughter, a home, work and multiple dogs, they face a day-by-day challenge balancing their lifestyle against their daughter's struggle to recover.
John Maloney, an officer with the Gainesville Police Department, says the family's saving grace has been the generosity of his co-workers. They and their families have donated gift certificates, food, leave time and even their own hair to aid in Bella's recovery, he says. A crew of them ripped out the carpet in Bella's room and laid down laminate flooring to make the space more sanitary.
"They really just went above and beyond anything that you could imagine," her father says.
Bryan Field, a GPD officer and middleman for many of the services GPD has volunteered, says the number of people interested in helping Bella was overwhelming at first. Over the course of six months, hundreds of meals have been delivered to Bella's parents.
Field says the generosity GPD has extended to the Maloney family is nothing new; he has seen it happen before for other officers.
"You can't help but form a unique bond, so when you hear your comrade or brother-in-arms is in trouble, it's natural to reach out and help anyway you can," Field says.
Many others also have contributed. The family's church built a kennel to house the Maloneys' dogs. The Alachua Police Department volunteered to monitor the family's home in Alachua while they stayed in the hospital. A Facebook page called Help Bella Fight has accumulated more than 1,000 fans. The page is covered with declarations of prayer and goodwill for the family. A Twitter account and a blog also were created for the cause.
Kelly Maloney says faith is what helps her get by each day. She prays with her husband, her family and with Bella every day, asking for healing and guidance.
"It's the only thing that kind of gets you through the day, just having faith that she is going to get better," she says.
Bella's father says it is difficult for the girl to comprehend her condition at such a young age.
"She has no idea that she's got cancer; she just knows that she doesn't feel good and she doesn't like what's going on," he says.
He says she sometimes gets angry when she has trouble communicating and "acts out," throwing things or just breaking down and crying.
With little control over her condition, her family does what they can by banding together to provide support.
"She will just be sick and crying, and we will just grab each other and just sit there and cry. Because it's like, what do you do?" her father says.
Bella has several treatments awaiting her before her recovery is complete, but her parents hope to end their current hospital stay later this month. In six months to a year, they believe, her immune system will have begun to strengthen and things will move toward normalcy.
Her father says their only option is to keep waking up and facing each struggle.
"You just don't have any choice, you just gotta keep going on every day," he said.