Call it parents’ intuition. Jackie and Mike Scelzo noticed their son, Jaiden, had been trying to eat dirt when he was outside playing. While that might not seem unusual for a toddler, when Jaiden, whose stomach had also become distended, woke up on his second birthday with a 104-degree fever, Jackie and Mike knew something was wrong.
With Jackie at work, Mike put Jaiden’s car seat into his truck and took him to the pediatrician. “Jaiden’s always loved what he calls ‘big daddy truck,’” Mike recalled, “but on that day he was very lethargic.”
Mike pushed the doctor to run blood work, and results showed he had anemia, which explained why Jaiden was eating dirt, and an enlarged liver. The Scelzos were advised to take Jaiden to the emergency room at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU (CHoR), where doctors were waiting to examine the toddler.
Not What He Wished For
Seven hours later on Oct. 6, 2016, doctors diagnosed Jaiden with Pre-B cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), one of the most common forms of childhood cancer. Jackie said even in the midst of the life-changing diagnosis, “the way the doctor broke the news gave me comfort. I felt Jaiden was in good hands.”
Later that day, Jaiden was admitted to CHoR, where he underwent a bone marrow biopsy and spinal tap and had a port placed to begin chemotherapy the next day. Jackie, who still gets teary recalling the experience, remembered how the procedure took two hours longer than expected because Jaiden had a respiratory reaction to the anesthesia. He was placed on a ventilator and spent a night in the pediatric intensive care unit. His parents never left his side.
“You’re at the mercy of doctors,” Jackie recalled, “and have to trust they are taking care of your baby.”
India Y. Sisler, MD, Medical Director, Hematology and Oncology, met Jaiden shortly after his diagnosis. “His symptoms were not the classic red flags for leukemia,” she recalled, “but his parents had a sense.”
During Jaiden’s first few days at CHoR, he remained lethargic and had little interest in the DVDs and coloring books brought to his room by the child life specialists. By the end of the week, as Jaiden’s easy-going personality began to return, his parents pulled him around the inpatient unit in one of the hospital’s small wagons.
“We kept a positive attitude,” Mike recalled of the week Jaiden spent at CHoR. “The doctors and nurses were incredible. Every time we had questions, no matter what time it was, they got answers.”
A New Normal
For the first six months after his inpatient stay, Jaiden returned to the ASK Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic at CHoR’s Children’s Pavilion every week for the most intensive phase of his treatment. Jaiden responded well to treatment and was in remission after the first 28 days, which is standard for about 90 percent of all children with ALL. As he continued treatment, Jaiden developed mouth sores, a side effect from one of the chemotherapy drugs that prevented him from eating and required him to be hospitalized for four days, and underwent frequent spinal taps to test for new leukemia cells.
“That was rough,” Jackie remembered of the regular spinal taps, which transitioned to every three months in January.
Within six months, Jaiden moved into his treatment’s maintenance phase, which includes daily oral chemotherapy at home and monthly visits to CHoR, and will continue for two and a half years. Mike said Jaiden is so used to the routine that he’s been taking his own medicine, after his parents measure it out, for months.
Off to Preschool
This fall, Jaiden began attending preschool two mornings a week. Sponsored by the ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation, the preschool program is designed to meet the specific needs of children going through cancer treatment. ASK also funds the child life specialist, chaplain and psychologist positions in the ASK Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Clinic, which allows CHoR to provide additional support to families.
“A lot of the support our families get would not be possible without ASK and Children’s Hospital Foundation,” said Dr. Sisler. “This support makes our clinic really feel like home and provides a community outside of clinic to help families get through treatment.”
Jackie said Jaiden looks forward to seeing “Miss Katie,” the child life specialist who works in clinic, his favorite nurse, Dianna, who “treats Jaiden like one of her own,” and Dr. Sisler, with whom he has a special bond. He also loves to play with trucks, climb on anything he can, and watch the movies, “Trolls” and “Sing.”
“Jaiden is the funniest kid,” said Dr. Sisler. “He was quite young when he was diagnosed but he always knew what he wanted. His determination is helping him through therapy.” As they prepared to celebrate Jaiden’s third birthday, Jackie said she couldn’t help thinking about “the blessings that came out of an awful diagnosis.” “Dr. Sisler is always available to answer our questions and is not stuck on one treatment protocol,” Jackie said. “She is open and willing to change things to benefit Jaiden.”
“We’re so happy we stayed here,” Mike said of their decision not to seek a second, out-of-town opinion. “We’ve built relationships with doctors and staff, and it’s so nice being only 10 minutes from home.”
Jaiden loves being home too. From playing with his two dogs to climbing on couch cushions and his backyard swing set, it’s hard to believe how sick he was only one year ago. “Jaiden’s energy wears off on us,” Jackie said, “and makes us more optimistic.”