By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior writer, email@example.com
LeAnn Naue likes to talk. A lot.
Whether it’s to her baby doll in the stroller, a guy with a camera or a nurse with medicine, she has things to say.
It’s a big part of the 2½-year-old’s charm.
But the best thing she got to say Monday was “bye.”
LeAnn, a cancer patient at Riley Hospital for Children for the past several months, rolled out of the hospital in a Riley wagon this week after finishing her last chemo treatment.
Because once you lock eyes with LeAnn and fall into conversation about babies, pandas, unicorns or bubbles, you don’t forget her.
She must have had some bad days in the hospital. Indeed, “chemo rage” is how mom Jenn Naue describes those fretful hours. But to see LeAnn march around the unit in her light-up boots, wearing her pretend ID badge and talking to everyone who walks by, it’s hard to imagine anything but joy coming from this child.
Joy can be hard to come by when you’re confined to a hospital room, hours from home, but Jeffery and Jenn Naue have taken their cues from their daughter, who was diagnosed six months ago with a rare cancer.
It started with headaches, followed by a bout with COVID last summer, her mom said. Her pediatrician noticed that her head seemed to be growing quickly, according to measurements, but they didn’t suspect a tumor at that point because she exhibited no developmental delays or regression.
Around Thanksgiving, everything seemed to happen at once. The headaches were back, LeAnn refused to eat or play, and almost overnight, she lost the ability to walk.
The Winona Lake couple came down to Riley on Dec. 6 for a CT scan, followed by an MRI the next day. That’s when they met with Riley neurosurgeon Dr. Rabia Qaiser, who told them the grim news that there was a “massive” tumor in their baby girl’s brain.
LeAnn underwent immediate surgery, but it was risky. Dr. Qaiser removed about half of the tumor, which was sent off for testing, but it grew back aggressively in just over a week, so they made the difficult decision to operate again to remove as much of the mass as possible.
That was five days before Christmas.
“There was the potential that she wouldn’t be able to move the right side of her body or be able to see after surgery,” Jenn said.
But her daughter is “a little fighter,” she said. No sooner had LeAnn come out of sedation after surgery and she was already trying to take out the breathing tube – with her right hand.
It would be January before the couple got the news that their daughter had an incredibly rare type of cancer – erythroblastic sarcoma, a variant of myeloid sarcoma.
LeAnn spent 64 days at Riley that first trip and has returned for six intense rounds of chemo, going home for a few days in between each round. She finished her last treatment three weeks ago, and after a couple of setbacks, the family headed home Monday, grateful to put the last seven months behind them.
“She has done remarkably well. It’s a huge blessing,” Jenn said, marveling at her daughter’s energy when they were still inpatient.
“Even on days when her blood counts are low, she still wants to go to the playroom,” she said. “She is very social. She loves the nurses. She blows kisses to Dr. Qaiser when she comes to see her. Dr. Qaiser saved her life.”
The ordeal has given the Naue family a greater appreciation for the medical world in general and for nurses in particular.
“We’ve been fortunate to have a lot of nurses who truly care,” Jenn said. “We’ve also learned how many people in our lives love us. You don’t realize until something terrible happens how loved you are and how grateful you are for that.”
Their once curly-haired kiddo is bald now, a scar running across her skull from surgery, but she doesn’t seem to notice. The day after her last chemo finished, she busied herself blowing bubbles up and down the hallway outside her room. Then she orchestrated a miniature band performance with her parents while she played harmonica, taking breaks to sing a tune she made up, “Happy celebrate, happy celebrate.”
“Come on, mama. I’m running, I’m going so fast,” LeAnn shouted to her mom as they chased bubbles down the hall.
“If you ever need cheering up, come on over and say hi,” Jenn said. “The nurses call it LeAnn therapy. Everybody should get a dose of it.”
Photos submitted and by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, firstname.lastname@example.org, and Maureen Gilmer