For a child — who up spent a third of her first six years in hospital — to start bouncing up and down in the backseat while pulling up to the hospital says something about the home away from home that was created for her.
Eliza May is brown-haired seven-year-old with a big smile and a passion for life. When she was just 11 months old, Eliza got a cold that spiraled into something far worse. Her parents, Stacey Wilkerson and Wes Oborne, thought she had the measles at first after a red rash took over her little body.
Wilkerson recalls spending weeks in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) at Victoria General Hospital while Eliza experienced constant fever and pain. Eliza has an undiagnosed auto-immune disease that causes her immune system to go into overdrive and attack her own body’s systems such as her lungs, bowels, bone marrow and kidneys.
In an open letter to the Victoria Hospital Foundation, Wilkerson describes the families longest stay in the PICU — 78 nights.
Eliza had a severe reaction to antibiotics, causing her small blood vessels to constrict resulting in her whole body turning black, including her limbs. Losing the tips of her toes, it was a miracle she didn’t lose a limb or that the toxicity didn’t reach her brain.
Watching as 10 caregivers ‘put everything they could into this little girl,’ Wilkerson and Oborne were in awe.
“If this were to happen to you or me,” one of the doctors said, “we wouldn’t survive.” Eliza was two years old, writes Wilkerson.
Dr. Jeffrey Bishop, one of Eliza’s many doctors at the PICU, says kids truly are stronger than adults. “We often see children recover from illness that would lead to death in adult patients,” Bishop writes in an email to Black Press Media.
Bishop works with an interdisciplinary team of professional caregivers including nurses, pharmacists, respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and social workers to care for some of the sickest children in the province, like Eliza. He says there have been times when she was easily the “sickest child in the country.”
What’s amazing is the life-saving treatment that Eliza received was provided for her right here on the Island. The PICU at Victoria General Hospital can treat 98 per cent of children needing care thanks to multiple surgeons and medical physicians with pediatric sub-specialty training based in Victoria.
“When your child is sick your life kind of falls apart anyway, but you still have to maintain a life outside of the hospital,” says Wilkerson, something that she believes would have been vastly more difficult if Eliza had been treated anywhere else.
Watching the PICU team do all they could to keep Eliza alive on more than 15 occasions, Wilkerson feels a sense of family when she walks through the hospital doors. She says they’ve cared for her just as much as they’ve cared for her daughter, recalling the first time Eliza was admitted and the terror she felt.
“They welcomed her in and then they offered to make me some toast … That’s the challenge of pediatrics, they’re not just taking care of the kids, they’re taking care of the parents,” she says.
There have been numerous times when Eliza’s family believed she wouldn’t make it through the night. On one of those occasions family members from all over Canada flew in to say their goodbyes.
It was an emotional time for Wilkerson, and as she went into Eliza’s area in the PICU she noticed a new quilt that somebody had made and donated was placed on her bed.
“[The nurse said] that’s Eliza’s new quilt and she’s going to take it home with her when she goes,” says Wilkerson. “They helped us believe she would make it through.”
Bishop says it would be difficult to not feel sadness, anger, frustration or helplessness when working with children who are critically ill or dying, but he believes the most challenging non-patient role in the PICU is that of the parent.
“When we do our job of treating pain and anxiety well, our patients often have minimal recollection of their time in the PICU,” he write. “Most parents, however, will likely never forget their stay.”
It’s been a year since Eliza was last hospitalized and her parents have started to think about the future in years instead of months or just weeks. Wilkerson says she would love to see Eliza grow up to work in a hospital someday and give back to the community that took her in.
“You never wish to be in this situation,” says Wilkerson. “But the community and the friends that we’ve made within the hospital is something we would have never experienced otherwise.”
Currently the Victoria Hospital Foundation is aiming to raise $1.8 million for 40 new monitors for the PICU and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) through their campaign You Are Vital Pediatrics. The monitors provide caregivers — and parents — with vital information that aids in making life-saving decisions.
“We learn to read those pretty well for people with no medical training,” she says. “We could watch second by second how hard [Eliza] was fighting.”
Contributions can be made by donating online at victoriahf.ca/vitalkids, calling 250-519-1750 or mailing to Wilson Block, 1952 Bay St., Victoria, B.C., V8R 1J8.
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