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In the days before Hurricane Irma was set to hit Florida, residents scrambled to prepare. Then the hurricane’s projected path shifted, and it looked like it would head in the direction of Jennifer Newman’s home in Wesley Chapel, near Tampa. She says the whole neighborhood felt eerie.
“The gas stations were running out of gas, there were lines all the way down the street, water was selling out everywhere, the canned goods were gone from the shelves. The empty shelves really took me off guard.”
Jennifer lives with her two young daughters and their dad, a local beekeeper. They stockpiled batteries and flashlights, water and food, even sandbags for their doors. Still, they were nervous.
“The national news at the point was pretty scary, what they were saying. The storm really shook people in a way I hadn’t seen much in my 20 years here.”
While Jennifer worried about the hurricane, her 2-year-old daughter Willow was focused on something else. For months, ever since she watched her older sister turn 4, Willow had been asking about her birthday — a birthday that happened to be the very day the hurricane would hit.
But both the hurricane and the birthday were about to feel a lot less important, starting when Jennifer noticed something unusual about Willow’s complexion.
“Her lips were looking pale,” Jennifer says. “And then before that, she was kind of taking longer naps during the day.”
Jennifer was concerned, so two days before the storm, she took Willow to the doctor, who noticed a bruise on Willow’s leg.
“She asked if I knew how the bruise came, and I said I didn't. And she said, ‘OK, I need you to go to the emergency room for blood work immediately.’ ”
The test results alarmed the doctors, and soon Jennifer and Willow were in an ambulance with lights and sirens, riding through streets that were unusually empty because of the impending hurricane.
When they arrived at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, they were ushered into intensive care and got the terrifying diagnosis: leukemia. The reality was overwhelming.
“I had to learn what leukemia was,” Jennifer says. “I knew it was a cancer of the blood, but I didn't really even understand what that meant. I cried my eyes out a couple times alone. Then I just had to pull myself back together and be with my daughter.”
By now it was clear they’d be at the hospital for a while. Willow’s dad had to stay with their older daughter back home, which meant the family would be split up for Willow’s third birthday and the hurricane. Jennifer says it was the scariest weekend of her life.
“I was trying to give direction on how to prepare a house and I had to meet with our oncologist,” she says. “I didn’t know how much more I could take at that point.”
Meanwhile, the hospital braced for a potentially devastating storm. A disaster team of hospital staff planned to camp out in the building for 72 hours straight during the hurricane. Once they settled in for the storm, word spread about Willow’s birthday, and the staff started scheming.
“You can’t stop a hurricane,” says Kelly Boyd, a child life specialist at the hospital. “Hey, why not throw a party with a big bang, right?”
They rummaged through a hospital stash to find gifts for Willow, and they all signed a Happy Birthday banner.
The next day, everyone watched the water through the hospital windows. As the wind blew harder and the sky darkened, it was time for their birthday plan.
Willow was getting a blood transfusion when a group of nurses and child life specialists walked in, singing "Happy Birthday."
“Someone was holding the cake, and her eyes were just wide open and she looked really happy,” Kelly says.
With the cake on her lap, Willow stuck her hand right into it and licked the frosting off her fingers. Then came presents. Willow shrieked with glee at each one. “Oooh, I always wanted this!” she’d say before even fully unwrapping it.
In a video of the party, Jennifer stands back and cries softly as nurses surround her daughter. It’s as though, for just a moment, they took on her burden.
A birthday party is a simple thing, but at that moment, it was everything — “being able to just celebrate something good and something fun, in a time that was just unknown for everyone,” Kelly says.
The brunt of the hurricane missed the hospital that day, but Willow’s struggle with leukemia is just beginning.
“We're looking at about six to eight months of pretty intense treatment for her,” Jennifer says. “She will get worse before better. She will lose her hair in the next couple weeks.”
But that day in her hospital room, with cake and singing, will stay with them.
“Next time we have to come in [to the hospital], she's not going to be as afraid, or as afraid as she would have been,” Jennifer says. “She knows this is a good place and that people love her and are trying to take care of her, and that will help her heal.”
Outside, the world was chaos and the future unknown, but for a few minutes in one hospital room, life was worth celebrating, and a little girl got what she always wanted.
This segment aired on September 26, 2017.
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