Girl Diagnosed with Cancer is an Inspiration for Family and Friends

June 03, 2010

Mike and Tracey Merriman had always believed that Golisano Children’s Hospital at the University of Rochester Medical Center was a vital resource for children in the Rochester-area community, but they never imagined how grateful they would come to be for the compassionate health care staff and expert medical care their daughter would one day receive.

“Bridgette grew up with an incredible sense of self and aura of confidence about her. She takes everything that life throws at her in stride,” Tracey explained. “We believe now that she was born with that incredible strength to prepare her for the obstacles that she was destined to face further down the road.”

Mike and Tracey started noticing signs that something was amiss on Martin Luther King Day in January 2009. Eleven-year-old Bridgette had a bad cough, so they took her in to her doctor’s office to be treated for congestion. Two weeks later, they noticed a lump on her neck, but were told it was a backed up gland, so they didn’t think much of it. Tracey noted that Bridgette had lost some weight too, but she was an avid swimmer and it was the peak of swim season, so the weight loss didn’t seem unusual.

When Mike and Tracey returned from a family trip to Florida with their children, Bridgette, Natalie and Sean, they decided to set up an appointment with Bridgette’s pediatrician, Elliot Kaplan, M.D., just to be sure everything was okay. Bridgette had been coughing terribly and unusually tired during their stay in Florida. Kaplan found that Bridgette had lost another six pounds and that there were more swollen glands not only on her neck, but on other parts of Bridgette’s body as well.

Kaplan promised to call that evening with the results from some blood work tests and a chest x-ray. Mike and Tracey thought this was a bit peculiar, but they figured she had mono, pneumonia or something else that was relatively benign.

The phone rang at about 6:30 p.m. that evening. Kaplan told them Bridgette had spots on her lungs. He had spoken with David Korones, M.D., pediatric oncologist at Golisano Children’s Hospital, who wanted to see Bridgette that very night. Within two hours, Korones and a team of other doctors sat down to talk with Mike and Tracey, ordered more blood work, did a chest x-ray and a CAT scan and told Bridgette and her family that she probably had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Korones explained that Bridgette would need to go into surgery the very next morning, so that Walter Pegoli, M.D., Golisano Children’s Hospital’s chief of pediatric surgery, could remove the large swollen gland on her neck and confirm the diagnosis.

Bridgette was very brave, but her eyes began welling up with tears when she heard the news. Mike and Tracey told their daughter it was okay to cry. “I’m more worried about my mom,” she said, looking over at Tracey, “Is she going to be okay?” Bridgette asked Korones.

Bridgette stayed in the pediatric intensive care unit for the night because Korones was concerned that the very large tumors that had caused her severe coughing were pushing against her breathing tube and might compromise her breathing. By the next afternoon, the surgery was completed. Results from the surgery, along with a number of other tests conducted over the new few days, indicated that Bridgette’s cancer was at an alarming stage four, which meant it had spread throughout her lungs, chest and lower abdomen. Four days later, Bridgette started her first round of chemotherapy. Eleven days after the family first met Korones, they were sent to home to Penfield to continue Bridgette’s journey toward healing.

While in the hospital and over the past year Bridgette, who turned 12 this past January, surprised the adults around her in many ways. Korones, who offers pediatric palliative care for patients and their families in addition to cancer treatment, explained that the most important thing in terms of dealing with a child with a new diagnosis of a potentially life-threatening disease is to gauge from the doctor’s impression and the parents how much they want to know.

“It was very quickly apparent Bridgette was a child who could handle the information and in fact, she seemed to do better from knowing what was going on,” said Korones. “Bridgette’s parents were extremely supportive of this.”

Bridgette used a journaling Web site, Caring Bridge, to educate, inspire and comfort many friends and family members. Through her Web page, she taught her many supporters about peripherally inserted central catheter lines, different needle sizes and much more. She wrote with a sense of experience but with the tranquility of a child.

During the first month she was receiving treatment, Bridgette took great interest in a doctor who had come from Ethiopia to shadow Korones named Kalid Asrat, M.D. One day, the Merrimans approached Korones with a suggestion Bridgette had made that completely blew him away.

Bridgette had learned from Asrat that many children with cancer in Ethiopia had no access to chemotherapy. The 11-year-old wanted to harness the support her good-natured family and friends were offering her to help children on the other side of the world. The family started a fund called Chemo for Kids and they encouraged friends and family members to direct their support for the Merrimans to Ethiopian children in need of cancer treatment.

Along with her “can do” spirit, Korones described Bridgette as “uncommonly resilient.” Besides the hair loss that resulted from chemotherapy, Korones said that Bridgette’s cheery attitude made it difficult to tell whether Bridgette was ever really experiencing any side efforts or discomfort.

Bridgette finished her radiation treatments in the middle of June 2009. Mike said that they became so fond of the hospital staff and the care was so top notch that on Bridgette’s last day of receiving chemotherapy, she said to her father, “I am going to miss coming here.”

Korones shared Bridgette’s sentiments. “The only downside to having someone do so wonderfully is that they don’t come to visit as much,” he said. Bridgette, who once came in every week, now sees Korones for check-ups every four months.

Bridgette continues to spread goodwill where ever she goes. Last summer, Bridgette attended Camp Good Days to share her success story with peers in hopes of raising their spirits. She and her family continue to support children in Ethiopia with their Chemo for Kids Fund.

Bridgette is back at school full-time now and she is flourishing with high academic grades in advanced classes, a seat on her student council board and a spot on the swimming and lacrosse teams. The amazing go-getter is also playing viola in Hochstein’s Sinfonia Orchestra, taking Irish Dance classes and is an active member of her church.

“It’s incredibly scary for parents to hear the words, ‘Your child has cancer,’” said Tracey. “We truly feel that in light of such an awful situation, we’ve had the best experience anyone could possibly hope for, thanks to the wonderful doctors, nurses, families and friends that have supported us.”

Miracle Weekend

Tune in to Children's Miracle Network's News 10NBC Telethon to meet the Merrimans, along with four other Miracle Kid families and Golisano Children's Hospital supporters and providers. The Telethon will take place during Miracle Weekend, 7 to 11 p.m. Friday, June 4, and 3:30 to 8 p.m. Saturday, June 5, on News10NBC. To make a gift, dial (585) 241-KIDS to donate during the Telethon, donate online or give $10 by texting "Strong" to 85944.

The Stroll for Strong Kids fundraising walk will also take place during Miracle Weekend from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, June 5, at the University or Rochester’s Fauver Stadium. To sign up or learn more, visit www.bit.ly/Stroll4Kids.

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