She Ignored Symptoms While Caring for Young Daughter With Cancer
Rebecca Elkins had been feeling ill for months. She couldn’t eat. She was nauseated and had stomach pain. But she had no time for doctors. She had to take care of her daughter, Lexi, who’d been battling cancer since she was 3 years old.
Perhaps, Elkins thought, her symptoms were the accumulation of the stress of watching her daughter undergo surgeries and treatments, and the fatigue of being vigilantly by her side all the time.
“For much of the past year, I waited by her bedside while she faced round after round of chemotherapy,” she said. “I knew my mindset should have been to take care of me so I could take care of her, but I was totally focused on taking care of her. I thought I just needed time to recover from the long ordeal.”
She was wrong.
Finally, when she and Lexi came home from a trip to Disney World sponsored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Elkins sought medical attention.
The news was unexpected and alarming. She had end-stage liver disease – and needed a transplant. She was admitted to Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia on March 23, when the hospital was under siege from COVID-19 and no visitors were allowed, especially not children in fragile health.
“The world was falling apart and I was locked away from my daughter,” Elkins said.
“Lexi and I had never been apart for more than a few days. All I could think was that I’d never see her again.”
Most surgical procedures were curtailed or temporarily halted during COVID except for patients with life-threatening emergencies, like Elkins. On April 2, she received a liver transplant performed by Radi Zaki, MD, and the transplant team.
“I was at extreme risk and so were the people who saved my life,” Elkins said, citing “the nurses and doctors at Einstein who took care of me, transplant coordinators, the therapists. All of them came to work, risking their own lives to save mine.”
Elkins was already deeply grateful to the medical community for keeping her daughter alive. Lexi was 3 when she had a tumor removed from her kidney and underwent months of chemo at Alfred I. DuPont Children’s Hospital in Wilmington. “It was hard to explain to a 3-year-old, but she was a trooper,” Elkins said.
At what was supposed to be the last of Lexi’s three-month scans before the exams were extended to six months, another lesion was found. “We had to go through it all over again,” Elkins said. Lexi, now 6, has had one kidney and part of the other removed. She is now in remission.
Then it was Elkins’ turn.
“I was so scared and I couldn’t hug anybody,” she said. “The nurses and doctors were awesome, knowing I didn’t have anyone to hold my hand. They were there for me.”
Elkins spent six weeks recovering from surgery, at Einstein, MossRehab and the family residence operated by Gift of Life, the regional organization that coordinates the recovery of organs used in transplants.
Her fiancé and Lexi’s dad, Derrick Fernander, stayed with her at the family residence, but Lexi was not allowed to be there with them. On May 1, Elkins was finally discharged and returned to Milford.
“Coming home was the purest experience of happiness I’ve ever felt,” Elkins said. “Lexi was so happy to see me. She didn’t want to leave my side.”
Now Elkins is strong enough again to go for walks with Lexi and their Maltese-Poodle named Bingo. She and Lexi cook together. And Elkins is doing strength training so she can return to her job as a manager at Home Depot.
Elkins was an organ donor before she received a liver, and is now a powerful advocate for donation.
“I want the donor’s family to know that I’m going to make the best of my life. I want them to know he was able to give me that gift” – not to mention the gift to Lexi of getting her mother back.
To schedule a telemedicine appointment or contact Einstein Organ Disease and Transplantation, please call 215-456-6933.