Christina, John and their two children, Asher and Selah, saw their lives completely change in the span of four days.
They went to bed on a Friday, the end of a typical week on their family farm in Florida. Animals were cared for. Family nature walks, frequent throughout any week, were taken. John, a high school teacher, and Christina, a photographer, had wrapped up their work. The kids were done with school. It was supposed to be a weekend to recharge as a family.
The holidays were on the horizon, bringing busy schedules for all.
By the time the calendar turned to Tuesday, the family was learning 4-year-old Selah had Stage V Wilms tumor. It was present in both her kidneys and had spread to her lungs.
The days were now filled with the unpredictability that comes with the unimaginable.
It started Saturday when John felt a lump on Selah’s right side while putting her to bed. He was alarmed and called Christina, who was out to dinner with a friend. By the time Christina arrived home, Selah was sound asleep, but her parents could see the mass protruding from her belly.
The next day, one of Christina’s friends came by for a previously scheduled visit. A nurse practitioner, she recommended they take Selah to the pediatrician first thing Monday.
After the pediatrician, Christina took Selah straight to the emergency room. She wanted information more quickly than the pediatrician could give her.
The emergency room doctor told Christina there were masses in both of Selah’s kidneys that weren’t supposed to be there. An ambulance ride to a local children’s hospital was followed by CT scans. Then Tuesday arrived with the official diagnosis.
The “whirlwind of information and procedures,” as Christina described it, was only beginning.
Wednesday, Selah’s port for chemotherapy treatment was put in. Thursday was her first chemo treatment. Friday, the family went home from the hospital, wrapping up a far different week than the previous one.
“It was like bam, bam, bam, bam,” Christina said. “It took me a while to recover from that week and start helping her get through the first initial few weeks.”
The whole family was trying to find its footing.
“My husband and I were completely devastated,” Christina said. “Our family was completely devastated. We were just in shock. But at the same time we were trying to navigate the facts of her diagnosis and doing what we could do to treat it the way we needed to treat it.”
Something else helped the family find their path forward. It happened on Wednesday, November 20, the same day Selah’s port was put in.
Andrew Davidoff, M.D., chair of the Surgery Department and director of Surgical Research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, called the family.
A connection explained by faith
For Christina, the explanation behind Dr. Davidoff’s call is deeply rooted in faith, and begins with Selah's uncle, Jay Feely. As a retired NFL kicker and current NFL sideline reporter for CBS, he was aware of St. Jude for two reasons: He had attended St. Jude fundraisers in the past, and the daughter of one of his colleagues at CBS was treated there.
Upon hearing Selah’s diagnosis, he contacted his colleague, who put the family in touch with St. Jude.
"When I found out from John and Christina about Selah, the first thing I thought about was St. Jude," Feely said. "Just getting them some information is what I really wanted. Like, 'Hey, what's the right course of action to take?'"
And that’s where the faith part comes in.
John had spent the night of the diagnosis researching every scientific paper he could find on Wilms tumor. After talking to Dr. Davidoff from St. Jude the next day, John realized most of what he read the night before was authored by Dr. Davidoff and his clinical team.
“Most people would say it’s a coincidence,” Christina said. “But, I’m sorry, that’s not a coincidence. He wrote the articles my husband was reading the night before and the very next day we get a phone call from him. It’s crazy.”
During the phone call, the family learned Selah could receive the chemotherapy treatment she needed anywhere in the United States because there is a very specific protocol for this type of cancer, and it wouldn’t vary from hospital to hospital. That part of treatment could be completed at home in Florida.
But Dr. Davidoff wanted her to come to St. Jude for surgery to remove the tumors because it was a complex surgery he had significant experience performing, and one she needed.
After reflection and consultation, and completing the necessary referral process, Selah's family agreed.
In late February, after a dozen rounds of chemotherapy in Florida, it was time for Selah to travel to St. Jude for treatment.
Two weeks in Memphis
“I was so skeptical about making that trip because taking a kid in chemotherapy on an airplane…,” Christina trailed off. “I was just a nervous Nellie about all of it.”
She was conflicted. On one hand, it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. On the other, she felt a sense of peace that it was the best option for Selah.
Selah loves art and nature. Both are prominently featured at St. Jude. She enjoyed the outdoor gardens, plus the murals and artwork on the interior walls, especially the Teen Art Gallery featuring artistic creations of St. Jude patients.
One feature in particular captivated her.
“The fish tanks. Oh my gosh,” Christina said.
Before the family left St. Jude, Selah was adamant they go back to the waiting areas to say goodbye to all the fish.
“In the waiting rooms we went to that had fish tanks, she was glued to them,” Christina said.
Christina’s sense of peace that St. Jude was the best option for Selah proved to be correct. The surgery saved 75 percent of Selah’s right kidney and 80 percent of her left.
“I don’t think she would have had that same result had we stayed in Florida,” Christina said.
“A lifelong thing”
As Selah approaches the one-year anniversary of her surgery at St. Jude, she is cancer-free, healthy and in kindergarten. She’s a free spirit who still loves art and nature — particularly flowers, animals, and, believe it or not, bugs.
She tells Christina all the time she wants to be a mommy and also wants to save animals.
“Her giggle and her laugh, they give me life,” Christina said.
But the impact of Stage V Wilms tumor remains.
There are years of follow-up scans. Close monitoring to make sure tumors don't return.
She needs to be followed by a nephrologist because she has partial kidneys now, and she requires an echocardiogram once a year indefinitely because the chemotherapy she received is very hard on the heart.
“It’s not just, ‘Okay, we’re done. We can move on with our lives,’” Christina said. “There’s lifelong doctors' appointments.”
Scan days bring anxiety for the family. They are upsetting for Selah, who usually cries and says she doesn’t want to go. Her parents worry about what the results will be.
Once a year Selah will return to St. Jude for an annual check-up. The first visit has yet to happen, but Christina thinks it’s one her daughter won’t be protesting.
“I will tell you, Selah asks to go back to St. Jude,” Christina said. “I just think that is incredible because of the reason why she was there. She remembers how kind the staff was. How pretty of a place St. Jude is. The activities she did. The fish tanks.
“She loves it there and she asks on a regular basis when she gets to go back. I think that’s a testament to how wonderful a place it is.”
The most special celebrations
Shortly after seeing Selah complete 12 rounds of chemotherapy and have surgery to remove the tumors, another life-changing event was on the horizon. One that would eventually impact every person on the planet: the coronavirus pandemic.
As the family quarantined together at home, two very important days approached. Selah’s 5th birthday in early April, and the celebration of her completing chemotherapy treatment in early May.
Selah’s birthday was a small celebration, but momentous.
“We weren’t even sure we were going to make it to her 5th birthday," Christina said. "Even though it was small we were all very, very thankful.”
Celebrating Selah’s completion of chemotherapy was just a little bit bigger — a parade at the family’s church with close to 300 cars, including the fire and police departments.
“So many people in our hometown came out to celebrate her," Christina said. "It was such a cool thing to witness so many people that rallied around my family. It was really amazing.”
And it provided a silver lining to the pandemic. “That wouldn’t have happened had we not been in quarantine.”
Celebratory parades were very much the trend in the spring of 2020, and it just so happened Selah had something worth celebrating.
It was no coincidence John and Christina selected their church for Selah’s parade. Faith is at the family’s core.
Upon receiving Selah’s diagnosis, Christina prayed two prayers. The first was: “Heal her. Don’t let her die from this.”
The second: “If we’re really walking through this, then this has to be a testimony of who you are, Lord, and what you’re capable of doing.”
Christina created a Facebook page to share Selah’s story because she wanted others to see how the family relied on their faith through treatment. It garnered worldwide support.
“I had people praying for her all around the world,” Christina said. “I had people from France contacting me. People from Australia contacting me. I had women’s Bible studies contacting me saying, ‘You have really strengthened our faith and we love watching your faith through all of this.’
“That is the thing I wanted to shine brighter than anything. I wanted people to know we are relying on God and we are not taking this for granted and know he is completely present in everything we are walking through.”
To the family, connecting with St. Jude was evidence of God’s work.
And there was another unexplainable moment Christina can only attribute to the divine.
About two weeks prior to Selah’s diagnosis, she was driving with her children when she heard her son, Asher, ask his sister a question.
“Selah, do you know what cancer is?” Asher asked.
“My ears perked up,” Christina said. “They don’t watch normal TV. They watch shows we have recorded for them. I have no idea where he got cancer from. We’d never talked to him about cancer. I’m sure he picked it up, but I don’t even know. I can’t explain it to you.”
Asher proceeded to talk to Selah about what cancer is. How it makes you really sick, but there is good medicine that helps you heal from it.
“It’s so strange to have this random conversation happening and then, lo and behold, two weeks later she gets diagnosed with cancer,” Christina said. “I can’t help but think maybe God was preparing his heart as much as he was preparing ours.”
The family is thankful for the path that led them to St. Jude, saying they are forever indebted.
“St. Jude has completely changed the trajectory of Selah’s life and our life as a family,” Christina said.
So much is different now from when they went to sleep on that ordinary Friday night, before their world was turned upside down.
“I will never say this was worth it, but I will say I am thankful because so much has changed. We live life differently. She lives life differently," Christina said. "Even though she’s a little kid and she can’t put it into words, you can tell she has an appreciation for life in a different way."