After nine weeks of visiting their twins in Riley Hospital for Children’s newborn intensive care unit (NICU) at Indiana University Health North Medical Center, Mikel and Suzanne Hartman of Plainfield, Ind., were thrilled to bring Grace and Henry home in October 2014. There, 3-year-old Elisa was excitedly waiting to meet her new brother and sister.
The babies had been due October 15 but arrived early, on August 6, each weighing a little over three pounds. Both progressed well in the NICU, and the Hartmans were eager to settle in as a family of five.
But Mikel and Suzanne would soon find themselves the parents of not two Riley kids, but three. Six weeks after Henry and Grace graduated from the NICU, Elisa was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) on December 2, 2014.
Friends often ask the couple how they handled the stress of those months. They believe their experience in the NICU strengthened them for Elisa’s fight against cancer. Among the lessons they say they took away: “To trust our nurses and doctors. To connect with other parents. To focus on the success stories and remain hopeful. To take one day at a time.”
Elisa began the three-year treatment for ALL at Riley Hospital’s main downtown Indianapolis location before the family followed her pediatric oncologist Allison Yancey, M.D., to Riley Hospital North. Now in the maintenance phase of her treatment, “Elisa’s in remission, and we’re working to keep her that way,” Dr. Yancey says.
The oncologist found Elisa’s parents immediately receptive to their daughter’s participation in a clinical trial. This Children’s Oncology Group study is looking at how modifying the dosage and frequency of standard ALL medications might reduce their long-term side effects. While Elisa benefited directly from additional testing of her particular leukemia for the study, a large portion is aimed at finding answers for future patients. Dr. Yancey was able to see firsthand the Hartmans’ natural instinct to think of others. “Right away they said, ‘If it could help a family down the road, then we’re more than willing.’ They are the kind of people that seek out ways to help others, even when fighting their own battle.”
The Hartmans call Elisa’s participation her living legacy. “She can be a survivor, and what she endures may be part of finding a cure, or a better life for kids who come after her,” Mikel says. Just as neonatology and pulmonology research pioneered at Riley Hospital decades ago helped her twin siblings during their NICU stay, the research Elisa is participating in will help other children win their cancer battles in the future.
In their unexpectedly longer association with Riley, the Hartmans say they also learned that meaningful financial support comes in all sizes. “We’re not the family who’s going to fund the next major research project or build a wing on the hospital,” Mikel says, “but we can find ways to help the Foundation and its mission.”
The couple have become members of Riley Society, and are especially committed to supporting the Child Life programs funded by Riley Children’s Foundation. The activities and distractions that Child Life offers during Elisa’s monthly clinic visits “make a world of difference,” Suzanne says. Mikel’s colleagues also raised funds to name one of Riley’s signature red wagons in honor of Elisa.
At home the Hartmans are enjoying the simple pleasure of watching their helpful, fun-loving 4-year-old play with her rambunctious 1-year-old siblings. In a hand-delivered letter to the Riley NICU staff on the twins’ first birthday, Mikel wrote: “You assured us we would make it through—all of us. And you were right.”
Did you know?
Riley Hospital is currently involved in 72 clinical trials for hematology/oncology patients, with 413 patients enrolled. Because Riley is one of just 21 U.S. Hospitals in the Children's Oncology Group Phase I and Pilot Consortium, patients are able to access the latest clinical trials and cutting edge medications.