I was first “introduced” to Angel Gordon when I saw her flyer on the door of a local convenience store. A photo of Angel with a shy little smile was next to the text, “Blood Drive on Behalf of Student/Cancer Patient”. My heart broke. I signed up to be a donor and solicited family members to do the same.
For the next week Angel and her family weighed heavily on my mind, and I decided to write about their plight. I met with Angel and her mom, Shelia, a few days later to learn more about them. The little girl who walked into that meeting looked similar to the little girl on the flyer; she was still a beautiful 10-year old, and she looked perfectly fine, but her smile was gone. Angel barely spoke the entire time I was around her and her mom, and Shelia says she’s like that most days since her diagnosis. She’s not sure if the silence is due to a low energy level or if it’s just a coping mechanism because Angel doesn’t like to talk about her cancer.
I asked Shelia to tell me about their ordeal, and here’s what she had to say.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, the Gordons’ house flooded, forcing them to live in a FEMA trailer. Shelia had been working for a home health agency, but the patient base was non-existent after the storm, and she had to find another job. This was hardly unusual for people in this area, and Shelia and her husband, Damon, just continued working, repairing their home, and doing the best they could, like everybody else.
Angel was a bright, active third grader in Ms. Bourg’s class at St. Rose Elementary. She was a member of the choir, and she loved cheerleading, gymnastics, and dance. She had hoped to take guitar lessons, but the class was full. Angel also wanted to learn to play tennis, but her parents couldn’t find lessons locally. Instead they bought rackets and practiced in their driveway.
In January Angel developed a fever and complained that her left leg hurt. Her doctor sent her to Children’s Hospital for x-rays which showed no problem. Two days later her left eye was swollen shut and her right eye was almost as bad. Damon and Shelia wondered if maybe Angel had pink eye, maybe she had caught something from living in the FEMA trailer, but the doctor ruled out that theory.
Angel was admitted to Children’s Hospital and put through a battery of tests over the next few days, while her family’s world turned upside down. When the doctor mentioned to Damon and Shelia that it might be leukemia, they were stunned and asked for a specialist. While more tests were being conducted, Shelia asked a nurse what would happen if Angel did have leukemia, what steps were involved. The nurse told her that the first step would be to assign them a social worker.
A few days later a woman walked into Angel’s room and introduced herself as their social worker, and this was when Shelia knew that her 10-year old daughter had leukemia. The social worker wouldn’t answer Damon and Shelia’s questions, couldn’t answer them, and told them the doctor was waiting to talk to them.
Together they walked into a conference room and faced a row of doctors seated at a long table. The specialist, Dr. Velez, told them that Angel had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL) and that ALL was actually the best leukemia to have because the cure rate is so high (80%). But, as Shelia said, when they’re talking about your 10-year old child, you don’t really want to hear any of that. The doctors proceeded to lay out the treatment plan for Angel, but Shelia and Damon were in shock, in denial, and nothing really sunk in.
When Angel was moved to the cancer ward, the enormity of what they were facing hit Shelia and she just lost it. In the two months Angel’s been on the ward, two of the children there have died and one little girl, who also has ALL, is back for her second round of treatments after being cancer-free for four years. Damon and Shelia wanted to prepare Angel for the ordeals of chemo, and they explained that her hair might fall out. Angel told them that she doesn’t care about her hair; she just wants this whole mess to be over.
Angel isn’t able to go to school for now. She has an in-home tutor two days a week, and Ms. Bourg, her teacher, volunteered to come out one day a week to tutor her in reading. Shelia quit her job to handle Angel’s medical needs full-time, including their four weekly trips to Children’s Hospital, and Damon quit traveling for work so that he can be close to his family. His employer, Ruth’s Chris, has been a godsend, Shelia says. Not only have they given Damon all the time off he needs, but they’ve also sent cards, flowers, and food when Angel was hospitalized.
Angel’s treatment program will last 2 ½ years, after which time it’s hoped she’ll be in full remission. She’s currently in the second phase of treatment, which involves administering the chemotherapy drugs directly into her spinal column. In the two months since she was diagnosed, she’s had three blood transfusions, and she’ll need more. Any blood Angel uses has to be replaced or paid for, a cost that could be staggering under the best of circumstances and crippling to a family already facing the Gordons’ financial situation. A successful blood drive would be a much-needed blessing.
Shelia says she doesn’t blame people who haven’t donated blood before because she was one of them. She says it never actually occurred to her to donate, until her child was the one in need. Now she realizes how vitally important blood donations are, how this simple act could be what it takes to save someone’s life. She’s trying to get the word out, trying to talk people out of their fear of donating, because she knows that lives are hanging in the balance.
Shelia says she’s asked “why” so many times. Why did this happen to their child? Her mom told her there is no “why”, you just have to move on from here, and Shelia’s trying to move on and trying to stay strong for her daughter’s sake. Some days, though, she just breaks down and cries. When she does Angel says to her, “Don’t cry; I’m okay”, which just makes her cry a little harder.