Shattered by the news that their 16-month-old daughter's upset tummy was in fact a cancerous brain tumor, a devoted couple are planning to “give her back her childhood" when her 90-week chemotherapy treatment ends.
When Gemma and Mike Walker's baby, Elsie, first started vomiting several times a day and lost her appetite in April 2019, their GP diagnosed a urinary tract infection (UTI) and prescribed antibiotics.
But a week later, when she was worse, not better, they returned to the surgery only for Elsie to have a seizure in the waiting room and be rushed to the hospital – the beginning of a terrifying journey for the family, which resulted in the baby being diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on the base of her skull.
Elsie out and about (PA Real Life/Collect)
Gemma, 34, an account manager, of Haxby, North Yorkshire, said: “It's not been easy. It really does feel like the rug has been ripped right from under us.
“We were living a relatively quiet and normal life and had it turned completely on its head.
“Luckily, though, the results from her treatment, so far, are positive and it gives us hope to look to the future."
Elsie getting back on her feet with the help of her grandparents (PA Real Life/Collect)
She continued: “We want to make some memories for Elsie now, so it doesn't seem like she's missed out on her childhood."
Elsie became the center of her parents' world the moment she was born at York Hospital on January 9, 2018, by emergency C-section, after her heartbeat dropped following an induced labor, as she was two weeks overdue.
A large 10lb 7oz newborn, she was a healthy baby until the spate of vomiting struck when she was 16 months old, leading to the initial diagnosis of a UTI, followed by her first seizure in the doctor's waiting room.
Recalling the terrifying episode, Gemma said: “We were sat in the waiting room and suddenly Elsie threw her head back and went completely stiff. It felt like it went on for an absolute lifetime, but it was probably more like a minute.
“We had no idea what was happening, but a doctor came through and gave her oxygen and before we knew it, we were in an ambulance, being rushed to the York Hospital."
Closely monitored, as doctors conducted further tests, including urine and blood tests, Elsie continued to have up to 10 seizures a day, each lasting no more than a couple of minutes.
Elsie after her 13-hour operation (PA Real Life/Collect)
“They were still saying they didn't think it was anything too serious," said Gemma.
But on her third day in hospital, Elsie had a 15-minute episode, which saw doctors doing their best to ensure she did not harm herself while she was in its grip.
By now seriously concerned, the same day, the baby girl was put under a general anesthetic, enabling her medical team to give her an MRI scan.
Elsie recovering from her op (PA Real Life/Collect)
Just an hour later, Gemma and Mike, 35, a mental health nurse, were told their daughter had a brain tumor.
Gemma recalled: “They had discovered a mass on the base of her brain.
“They couldn't tell us much. They alluded to the fact that it might be cancerous but couldn't confirm anything else until we'd seen specialist doctors."
She continued: “It knocked the wind right out of us, we were completely bewildered when the doctors told us – it was like we were being punched in the stomach.
“We couldn't comprehend what we were hearing, we still expected it to be related to the UTI somehow, and all of a sudden our world was falling down.
“Words really can't describe the devastation we felt, one seizure changed our lives forever."
Elsie playing in the hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
Transferred to Leeds General Infirmary in West Yorkshire, for more specialized treatment, Elsie was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a build-up of fluid on the brain as a result of the tumor – the cause of her seizures.
After two initial procedures lasting two hours each to drain the fluid away, Elsie was scheduled for a 13-hour operation on April 13 to remove as much of the tumor as possible.
“In a sense we couldn't wait for the operation, so that she could start her recovery, but that didn't stop us feeling absolutely terrified," said Gemma.
Elsie at home (PA Real Life/Collect)
Fortunately, the operation was a success, with surgeons removing as much of the tumor as possible, but biopsy results two weeks later confirmed that it was cancerous, and the disease had spread to the base of Elsie's skull and spine.
Diagnosed with pilomyxoid astrocytoma, a tumor of the central nervous system, doctors put Elsie on a grueling 90-week program of chemotherapy – to start right away.
Prescribed 12 weeks on and four weeks off to recover in between, Gemma reflected on Elsie's first bout of treatment, saying: “It's hard because she's not old enough to understand what's going on. We can't explain that she's poorly and the doctors are trying to fix her.
“We hope that she won't be able to remember everything she's been through, but in another sense, we just want to explain why all these people are pushing and prodding at her."
But with results following the first course of treatment showing the remaining cancer has disappeared in Elsie's spine and shrunk in her brain, her parents are hoping the harsh regime will pay off.
Raising over £7,000 (~$8,580) between them for Macmillan Cancer Support, who have given them “invaluable help" since Elsie's diagnosis, at the end of July Mike took part in the charity's 'brave the shave' campaign to help boost their fund.
Elsie recovering with her family (PA Real Life/Collect)
Now, with another year and a half of chemotherapy on the horizon, Gemma and Mike are hoping to ease Elsie back into a “normal routine," as well as planning ahead for things to look forward to in the future.
“We're hoping to introduce her back into nursery one day a week and see how we move from there," said Gemma.
“A holiday abroad is definitely off the table for the foreseeable future, as I doubt if we'd get the insurance even if we wanted to go, which we don't, as we don't want to be far from the hospital staff here."
Elsie with her mom and dad (PA Real Life/Collect)
She added: “But Elsie's a massive fan of Peppa Pig, so maybe a trip to Peppa Pig World might be more doable…let's see!"
To donate to their cause, visit: bravetheshave.macmillan.org.uk/shavers/mike-walker