Madelyn Kuhnlein is very happy.
She was even happier when she, her parents Lisa and Peter, and little sister Sophia got to spend six days at a dude ranch in Tucson, Ariz., thanks to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Madelyn got to ride horses, feed horses and even bath horses. She got quite close to one in particular named Bronco.
During the Anacortes family’s stay at the White Stallion Ranch, Madelyn turned six years old.
It will be three and a half more years until she will be truly considered cured from acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
“She won’t be out of cancer world until she’s 9 1/2,” Lisa said.
Madelyn was diagnosed with the most common childhood cancer when she was 4 1/2. It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2010.
On Friday, the day after the holiday, her treatment began.
Acute lymphocytic leukemia is a blood and bone marrow cancer that produces too many white blood cells called lymphoblasts, according to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The leukemic cells accumulate and crowd out healthy blood cells.
The symptoms include weakness, fatigue and pain in the bones — which Madelyn suffered from during the approximately six months leading up to her diagnoses. She also had unexplained fevers and a particular pain in her elbow.
It took awhile for the blood counts to show signs of something wrong, Peter said. But when they did, the family was soon on the road to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Medical staff at the hospital persuaded Lisa to contact the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which eventually led to the family’s trip to White Stallion Ranch.
The process began with a visit from foundation volunteers — a wish team — made up of Karen Lazar and Lora Banta. Lazar, who has been with Make-A-Wish for 14 years, said Madelyn and her family were easy.
“She knew exactly what she wanted,” she said. “She’s like a little adult.”
They met Madelyn at the hospital, bringing her gifts and talking to her about her favorite song, favorite color and eventually her one true wish.
Madelyn told them she wanted to take care of horses and live on a ranch.
From March 15 to 20, the foundation made that wish a reality for the whole family.
The details of the trip were revealed at a bon voyage party with Madelyn’s friends and family at Village Pizza.
The day of the trip, the family was met at the airport by her wish team and escorted to the front of the security line by a TSA agent. On the plane, the flight attendants announced Madelyn was beginning her Make-A-Wish vacation, which was met with a round of applause from the passengers. The pilot greeted them, showed them the cockpit and gave Madelyn and Sophia gifts.
The dude ranch itself is owned by two brothers whose parents bought it in 1965. It has 3,000 acres, more than 120 horses and 150 cows and 45 rooms.
“Everything was good,” Madelyn said. “And we had our own little cabin.”
Bronco, Madelyn’s favorite horse, was a quarter horse with only one eye, she said. But she was also pretty excited about another horse at the ranch who was going to have a baby.
Sophia, 3, though too young to ride a horse on her own, got to ride Scooter while Lisa and Peter walked beside her.
Both girls got to feed cookies to the horses, brush them and shower them with water.
The vacation included barbecues, sing-alongs around the campfire, a petting zoo and swimming pool. The highlight of the trip was when Madelyn got to ride her horse into the desert for a picnic breakfast.
Madelyn’s fascination with horses is nothing new. She has a number of horses of every shape and color from Rosemary, a miniature horse she carries in her pocket to school, to Moonlight, Rosebud and Stormy, stuffies she keeps on her bed.
“I just really like them,” Madelyn said. “When I was 3 I liked them, when I was 4, when I was 5 and when I’m 6.”
Madelyn said she doesn’t know why she likes horses, she just does. She draws and paints them all the time. Just about every one has flowing hair and a ribbon on his or her neck.
When Madelyn started treatment, the drawing really kicked in, said Lisa, who figured it was a coping mechanism.
“Madelyn came to that on her own and that’s very much like her personality,” she said. “She’s not shy. She came up with it as a coping mechanism herself.”
She’d get into bed with paper and pens during her inpatient days and would just draw horses.
“The thing I loved was they were happy,” Lisa said. “It was like she was looking forward to being in ‘that place’ again. This is Madelyn.”
Madelyn is currently in a long-term treatment stage that involves oral chemotherapy every day to destroy the leukemic cells. Though that sounds like a lot, Madelyn’s first six months of front-line treatment was the most intense, Lisa said. She experienced the most side effects then including pain, vomiting, losing her hair and having trouble walking.
Along with the oral medication, Madelyn gets an infusion once a month through a portacath in her chest at Seattle Children’s and regular lumbar punctures to put chemotherapy into her central nervous system.
“She calls that the sleep room,” Lisa said of where Madelyn gets the treatment, explaining it’s the only treatment she gets where she can be asleep.
It’s that first week after hospital visits that Madelyn feels the worse, including feeling sad, anxious and scared, Lisa said.
Lisa and Peter always try to combine the treatment trips to Seattle with a fun activity such as rock climbing and visiting the zoo. Recently it’s most often been swimming lessons at the hospital.
Madelyn also gets regular complete blood counts and other lab work done at Island Hospital.
In between hospital visits, the family has to be careful about exposing Madelyn to illnesses because her immune system is suppressed from the chemotherapy. With the current whooping cough epidemic, they had to be especially cautious about sending her to school, which can always be a hard decision since Madelyn is such a social person, Lisa said.
If she ever has a fever of 101 or above, it’s off to the emergency room or clinic. If needed, antibiotics are started as soon as possible. The family also has a local pediatrician for other issues.
In 10 more months, Madelyn’s long-term treatment ends and two and a half years of monitoring begins, a time Lisa is already anxious about.
“The waiting, the watching, the hoping for no relapse,” she recently wrote on a blog started to help family and friends keep up with Madelyn’s treatment.
Other than her constant treatment of medications, life in the Kuhnlein household is pretty normal. Madelyn is a kindergartner at San Juan Montessori School, goes to dance class, recently learned how to ride a bike and just started playing Little League softball last week.
“Man can she throw!” Lisa wrote on the blog. “She’s pretty good at watching the ball, she has no fear of sticking her mitt out there to catch it and can really wack it!”
Right now the cancer is not a big part of their lives, so they don’t make it so, Lisa said.
“Right now we concentrate on being 6.”
The Make-A-Wish Foundation began in 1980 and today has nearly 25,000 volunteers.
Many of the children who have been granted wishes have gone on to lead healthy lives. Their wishes range from trips to a theme park or meeting their idols to a special gift such as a computer or tree house.
Granting a child’s wish starts with a referral either from medical professionals, the parents or child. Age requirements are 2 1/2 to 18. Medically, a child is eligible for the program if he or she has been diagnosed with a life-threatening medical condition.
Monetary donations along with in-kind contributions, from airline miles to computer equipment, help the nonprofit organization accomplish its goals. The local chapter, with an office in Seattle, serves Washington and Alaska.
For more information about the Make-A-Wish Foundation, go to http://www.wish.org and www.northwestwishes.org.
To learn more about acute lymphoblastic leukemia, go to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society at http://www.lls.org.
Read about Madelyn and her journey through cancer treatment at http://madelynjill.blogspot.com.
All photos by Lisa Kuhnlein / KP Studios.
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