Posted: November 10, 2014
Tina and Michele had found all they wanted in their family. Their funny and athletic 6-year-old daughter, Rowan Grace, brought them joy every day as they settled in to a new home while enjoying life as a happy family of three.
Everything changed on September 13, 2004 when Rowan was diagnosed with pre-B cell ALL. Rowan started treatment immediately at Banner Children’s Hospital in Mesa, AZ, and responded well. She achieved remission after 7 days of chemotherapy, but her treatment protocol, like all kids with ALL, would last two years. Tina and Michele worked hard to listen to Rowan and facilitate her needs and desires, and advocated strongly for her to have as much control as possible throughout her treatment.
Rowan completed treatment in January, 2007, was able to resume the life of a normal eight-year-old, and the family slowly settled into a new rhythm. The first six months after treatment were especially hard for Michele, who worried that every bruise was the leukemia returning, but over time they began to relax and trust that their experience with childhood leukemia was firmly behind them.
Twenty months after treatment Rowan developed a persistent virus. Tina and Michele brought her to the oncologist as a precaution and heard the news that every parent of a childhood cancer survivor fears: Rowan’s cancer had returned.
Their world came crashing down. Rowan was 10 now, older and wiser. She knew what to expect and was brutally aware of what it would take to beat cancer a second time. Tina reflected that during her first battle, Rowan never wavered. She simply adapted with her customary grace and good humor. However, after relapse her sparkle dimmed for a few months. She was so discouraged that the leukemia had returned, but was determined and eventually found her equilibrium again.
This time, Rowan’s treatment protocol was much more intense and unrelenting. After 6 months of chemotherapy at Banner Children’s Hospital, the family traveled to the City of Hope in Duarte, CA, for a bone marrow transplant. A perfectly matched donor had been located, the gift of life given by a woman in a European country. The family was certain that this would be Rowan’s cure. Rowan received massive doses of radiation and chemotherapy in preparation for the transplant.
Eight days after her transplant, Rowan started having trouble maintaining healthy oxygen levels in her blood, and within 12 hours was placed on a ventilator to support her lungs. Tests showed she had a common respiratory virus. Though this virus would cause only a bad cold in someone with a normally functioning immune system, it would prove devastating for a child whose immune system was suppressed from the transplant process. She spent three weeks in the ICU on a ventilator. The transplant had worked beautifully, but the damage to her lungs from the virus was too severe.
On April 28, 2009, Tina and Michele made the heart breaking decision to remove life support. They moved Rowan out of the hospital bed to the couch and held their daughter in their arms as she passed away.
Michele and Tina were devastated by the loss of their beloved daughter and only child. Many difficult years passed as they experienced the challenges of grief and loss.
In June 2013, Tina began to resurface and started exercising again. In August, Tina received an email from CureSearch’s Ultimate Hike program, and it piqued her interest. Hiking had long been a favorite past time for Tina and Michele. They had often gone on hiking trips as a family, and enjoyed being outdoors together. Tina knew immediately that the Ultimate Hike was something she needed and wanted to do. She told Michele about the Hike, and they decided to take on the challenge together as a way to honor Rowan’s memory and facilitate their own healing.
Training for the Hike was difficult, but it was something that Tina and Michele could do together. It allowed them to reengage in life in a meaningful way. They were able to meet some fitness goals and feel a special connection with Rowan.
On the day of the Ultimate Hike, the trail was covered in snow from an early winter storm. Tina and Michele stayed at the back of the hiking group, taking their time and enjoying the absolute beauty of California’s Pacific Crest Trail. They were nervous about holding up the group but resolved to “hike our own hike.” “It wasn’t a race for us; it was part of our grief journey and an opportunity to reflect on our process of healing from the loss of our daughter,” reflects Michele.
Because of the winter storm, the hikers had to leave the trail at mile 15 and finish the journey on a hike-and-bike trail around a nearby lake. Tina and Michele walked until dusk and watched the sunset together; they completed over 20 miles in just under 10 hours, all for their girl.
Tina reflects on the many training hikes begun in the pre-dawn hour. “There’s something about being on the trail as the sun comes up and the world wakes from darkness. Everything takes on an amazing aura and anything seems possible, perhaps even surviving the loss of your child. Training for the Ultimate Hike helped me begin to heal from the ultimate loss.”