Mum shares Leukemia warning signs she noticed in her son with Down syndrome
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Featured Image Credit: @mermaidmussels/Instagram
During the early stages of the pandemic, Brittany Gabrel did everything in her power to make sure she and her family stayed safe and Covid-free. They stayed home, regularly cleaned the surfaces in their Corpus Christi, Texas home, and washed their hands religiously.
But on 5 August 2020, a concerned Brittany took her three children, Nick who was 15 at the time, Landrey, who was six, and Bodhi, who was just 18 months, to the emergency room after her youngest seemed to become progressively more and more unwell.
The 40-year-old told Tyla: “We had all gotten sick as a family, and everybody was starting to get better. But Bodhi was getting worse.
“He was now having nosebleeds that were just uncontrollable. He wasn't getting any better. And then I started thinking, ‘Well, maybe it's just his first cold.’
The results came back positive for coronavirus.
“You know, I never thought Covid because we didn't go anywhere,” Brittany admitted. “And that alone upset me, because I was like, ‘how did we get Covid?’
“I thought that was the worst possible thing you could get.”
Little did she know that Bodhi, who has Down syndrome, was also battling something much more sinister.
Doctors in the A&E department began to ask whether her youngest son always looked so ‘pale’.
“I said, ‘yeah, I mean, he’s a baby,” the mum-of-three recalled. “We use sunscreen, we’re all kind of pale ourselves.”
But the doctor insisted that they needed to run further tests on Bodhi.
“I was just oblivious to what he was saying, and he explained to me that he was going to do a complete blood count. I asked why, and he said, ‘I think he may have leukaemia'.”
After what felt like an eternity, the doctors returned to confirm Bodhi’s cancer diagnosis.
“It was the longest 30 minutes of our lives. I called everybody I knew and told them what [the doctors] were thinking. I called my husband and said, ‘you need to come home from work'.
“They [the doctors] came back in and they said, ‘Yeah, he has leukaemia. You need to go to the children's hospital right now, you have no other choice'.
Once the medical staff returned with the devastating news, Brittany and her family were soon thrust into the shocking reality that their toddler was battling cancer.
“I was told to have someone pick up my other kids. We didn't even have time to come home,” Brittany recalled.
“We went to the hospital and [got] checked in and they were waiting for us… It all happened so quickly, everything.”
Bodhi started his chemotherapy the following morning, and he and his mum stayed in the hospital for 46 days in isolation during his first round.
It wasn’t until her son started treatment that Brittany realised the gravity of the symptoms he was experiencing all this time.
“His platelet count was a three, which is why his nose was bleeding… His body couldn’t clot,” Brittany reflected. Bear in mind, the normal blood platelet count is between 150 and 400 x 109/L, as per NHS England.
“After they gave him the blood and about three hours later, he perked up so much. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, like he's been sick for a while'.”
Looking back, the mum-of-three had noticed worrying changes in Bodhi - but these were simply dismissed as symptoms of his Down syndrome by their family’s paediatrician three months before he would be diagnosed with cancer.
“He stopped crawling, he was tired all the time, and he would have frequent bloody noses,” Brittany recalled of Bodhi’s early warning signs.
“I thought maybe he was just picking his nose or [doing] things that toddlers do.”
But after reading educational books about the link between leukaemia and Down syndrome, Brittany took Bodhi - who was 15 months old at the time - to his specialist.
“I had mentioned that I was concerned because I have read that leukaemia and Down syndrome kind of go hand-in-hand.
“I had just asked, ‘were any of these signs that I was seeing, could that be a sign of leukaemia?’ And our paediatrician said, ‘no’.
“And so he didn’t order testing or anything, and we were sent home. Looking back, he literally had every single sign,” Brittany recalled.
And her mother’s instinct was right. Children with Down syndrome are 150 times more likely to develop acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and are at 33 times greater risk of developing acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), according to Leukemia Care.
After four rounds of ‘high-dose chemotherapy’, Bodhi, who is now two years old, thankfully recovered and will be celebrating one year of being in remission in January.
Brittany told us: “Every month that goes by, a sigh of relief can be given because they say that relapse will happen in the first three months [of recovery]. And so when he hit that three-month mark, it was like, okay, we can breathe.
“So now, we go through every month, and he gets a good bill of health. It's like, okay, we're gonna make it and now here we are in January, it'll be a year,” Brittany said.
“We're getting closer and closer to the finish line, which they won't consider him totally cured for five years, then so he'll be seven at that time - and that's when we can really breathe.”
While Brittany and her family are navigating Bodhi’s remission journey, she has taken it upon herself to foster a platform through her TikTok channel to raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of childhood cancer.
She said: “I've immersed myself into the cancer community and [I’m] just continuing to spread awareness.
“My job here isn’t done, I will continue supporting others because [Bodhi] has still got little friends in treatment. And as we get new families diagnosed, I'm still a part of it.
“A lot of it is really hard when I hear one of our friends that we support is going to [the] hospice because their tumour came back, or things like that. It’s really something that you don’t want to be a part of, but I have to be a part of it because I want to help as many people as I can.”
As for other parents who might be worried about their children’s symptoms, Brittany has urged that they ‘push’ the doctors to find out the answers.
“First of all, I hope no other parent has to go through this,” she told us. “But I know that's not happening anytime soon.
“I hope that if a parent does see these signs in their child, they do push their paediatricians to do the simple blood test, to get diagnosed early.”
For advice and support regarding a child or young person with cancer, call Young Lives vs Cancer on 0300 303 5220 Monday to Friday, 9am–5pm or email them at [email protected].