By the time she was 2 years old, Nicole had suffered repeatedly from abdominal pain accompanied by fever and, later, vomiting. "Looking back, I realize that each time it came back stronger," recalls her mother, Phyllis Padinha. Nicole's pediatrician insisted that the pains were caused by a virus, but by the fourth episode Phyllis and her husband, Tony, had begun to doubt that diagnosis. Their fears were confirmed when, on Nov. 8, Nicole was diagnosed with an advanced case of Neuroblastoma.
In early November, the Padinha’s had taken Nicole, their only child, to the family's primary care doctor. He said she might be allergic to dairy products. Nicole was negative to this allergy which was good as a positive test could have delayed her diagnosis.
Then Nicole underwent x-rays and ultrasounds at Newark Beth Israel Hospital, which is a half-hour drive away from the Padinha’s' home in Rahway, New Jersey. The tests revealed a mass in her abdominal area and the technician told Padinha she needed to talk to a surgeon that day. "The tests were done in the morning and I didn't get home until that night," Phyllis remembers. "I went from technician to doctor to surgeon to oncologist. By the end I was walking without being conscious."
Nicole's tumor was removed later that week. The medical team told the Padinha’s that the tumor was malignant, but hadn't spread to other organs. Then they performed a bone marrow biopsy and sent the results to be analyzed at a Los Angeles hospital, where doctors found Neuroblastoma cells in Nicole's bone marrow. An autologous Bone Marrow Transplant (BMT for short), the doctors said, would give Nicole the best chance for survival.
"When I first heard that Nicole had Stage IV Neuroblastoma, all I could think was 'Why?'," Phyllis says. "I couldn't breathe and no one could stop me from crying. I had a million questions that no one could answer. "When my husband and I heard her chances for survival, we couldn't see a future at all. We were very quiet together for weeks and months, clutching each other for support," she says. The couple found comfort in talking to other parents who had gone through the same thing.
For the bone marrow harvest, Nicole and her mother flew to Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. Once the marrow was harvested, it was purged in an effort to reduce the number of Neuroblastoma cells in the sample.
Nicole began five months of chemotherapy at Newark Beth Israel Hospital. In May 1994 she traveled to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for radiation therapy and the Bone Marrow Transplant, which she came through with no complications except a high fever that lasted about two weeks. Once the fever subsided, Nicole was able to return home to her overjoyed family.
Although Phyllis was frightened much of the time, she realized that Nicole needed her to keep a positive outlook at all times. "She was so young she had no idea what was happening," Phyllis explains. "I knew she was going to react the way she saw me react, so I made the situation look as natural as possible. "I was there for her constantly," she continues, "from the minute she opened her eyes to the minute she closed them. Sometimes I just wanted to cry whether she saw me or not, but I had to stress that everything would be O.K."
While Nicole was ill, Phyllis gave her a small toy or knickknack each morning. "You'd be surprised what it does for the child," she says. "They look forward to tomorrow to get something new."
"She always had a smile on her face, and it helped me a lot to see her that way," Phyllis says. "Now it's hard for me to believe anything ever happened to her."
Nicole is now 19 years old living life to the fullest and loving a normal college life.
Parts of this story of Nicole were gathered from:
Issue # 32 - BMTs for Neuroblastoma
Reprinted by NYSERNet with Permission from BMT Newsletter