By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, email@example.com
Samar Shohatee never dreamed that the day she gave birth to her second child in one hospital would be the same day her older son would be admitted to another hospital 50 miles away.
And soon, the reason would be devastatingly clear. Cancer.
The Bloomington mom had been trying to get answers for weeks after her 2-year-old, Owais Algaad, started complaining of pain in his leg following a fall at the playground. But she couldn’t have imagined what that tumble would lead to last October.
Doctors at first eased her concerns, saying X-rays showed no broken bones and that her son likely suffered a mild sprain. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it.
“He just kept getting worse. He went from limping to not being able to stand or sit up right,” she said. “At that time, I was eight months pregnant, but I knew something was not right.”
When he lost his appetite and began complaining of pain in his side, she took him to the hospital, thinking it was his appendix. Scans showed nothing wrong with his appendix, so she took him home.
It was Oct. 9, the day she was scheduled to deliver her second child with husband Salman Algaad via C-section that Owais’ condition worsened.
“My husband said he needed to take him to Riley now. He was really sick; his legs were clenched together like a magnet.”
So while she was giving birth in Bloomington, her husband and son were at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, where Owais’ condition initially stumped doctors. It was several days later when a biopsy led to the shattering diagnosis – Burkitt lymphoma/leukemia, a fast-growing cancer that in Owais’ case was attacking his bones, kidneys, liver and other parts of his tiny body.
Aggressive treatment was started immediately, but it was brutal for the little boy.
“The first two months of Owais’ treatment, there are no words to describe it,” Shohatee said. “Mentally, physically, emotionally, I was destroyed.”
Destroyed because her little boy was so sick she barely recognized him, and her newborn was being cared for miles away by her own parents.
Initially, she told herself she was not going to chronicle his fight against the cancer, saying the memories would die with her.
“I didn’t want him to relive the misery.”
But along the way, she realized that sharing her family’s experience might help her son and others someday. So she took photos and short videos of her child at his sickest, adding to them as he fought through the worst of it.
“I need him to see this when he grows up and tells me something is too hard,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘Look what you did as a child. Nothing in the world can stop you now.’ ”
As she talks, she begins to cry. Sensing her pain, Owais cries nearby from his Riley bed. She comforts him and says, “I had to be the strong one through this. I can’t show my fears, my tears, my emotions. I was afraid that would make him weak and the doctors weak.”
One of her son’s favorite nurses, however, says strength runs in the family.
Whitney Cherry first met Owais and his parents in November and soon became their primary nurse during her shifts on the oncology unit at Riley.
“I’ve really enjoyed taking care of them. They are the most amazing family,” she said. “Owais got very sick and went through a lot of difficult obstacles, but his mom showed him how to be strong when he was being stubborn and not feeling good.”
Owais in turn helped his mom focus on the light at the end of their fight, Cherry said. His big personality and smile endeared him to the nurses and therapists.
“He always brings a little bag of candy with him at every admission and says he wants to give it to his silly nurses,” she laughed. “He’s been very resilient throughout this process.”
Shohatee, who spent most days with Owais while her parents continued to care for her infant son, had to be coaxed to take breaks. She is grateful to the Riley team who walked alongside her and her son during his treatment, recalling how nurse Rachael Harless would entertain Owais at night so his mom could get some sleep.
They were happy to do it, Cherry said.
“Having a newborn and turning around and having your other child diagnosed with cancer, that is traumatic,” she said. “They are the kindest people I think I’ve ever met. They are so generous and giving. They have shown true strength throughout this.”
END OF CHEMO
Owais, who marked his 3rd birthday at Riley in December, finished chemotherapy at the end of March and is in remission. He and his parents have been staying off and on at the Ronald McDonald House while he builds back his immunity, but he is back to his old self for the most part, Shohatee says.
“He’s excited to be all done. He misses his nurses, but he says they can come visit him at his house.”
She is looking forward to the day when they can all be a family again back home in Bloomington and her two sons can bond as brothers. At the same time, she believes their story can make a difference for others going through cancer, specifically Burkitt’s.
“I want to show them how Owais was and is now and give them hope. Close your eyes. Breathe. Be patient. Walk through it,” she said. “When I started all this, people told me it would be like a marathon with ups and downs, but nobody can fully understand it until you are really in it.”
Even at this moment, she said, she may be sitting down but in her head she’s running. Constantly thinking, planning, and yes, worrying.
That’s what parents do, of course. But Cherry says Owais could not have a better advocate in his mom.
“Samar is such a good mom. She pushes the doctors and nurses to find answers, and that’s her job.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org