As with all of her children, it was when Linda Ferrell saw the first image of her tiny daughter that it felt like she was really hers.
That initial connection came not through a sonogram but a photograph of her fourth child, Emma, who made her entrance into the family from China a few months later. “The picture is what’s pretty amazing,” said Linda. “It was love at first sight.”
Ten-month-old Emma joined a seven-year-old sister, also from China, plus two older brothers, Linda and husband David’s biological children. Life was good as Emma excelled in school, played softball, and was growing up. Then in the spring of 2014 she got sick. There were headaches. She lost her voice. She lost 10 percent of her body weight. Her pediatrician kept insisting it was a virus.
“That went on almost a month,” Emma’s mom said. When Emma was finally admitted to the hospital, an MRI showed a brain tumor encasing her entire left ventricle and making its way toward the right.
“You immediately think of the future—a future possibly without her,” Linda said. “But that is so brief. We’re a family that wants to find solutions, and we’re not going to waste our time crying. We were going to find out how to help her. She didn’t deserve anything less than that.” Emma’s doctors didn’t mention proton therapy, but Linda did research online and discovered it as a treatment option particularly ideal for pediatric patients. Unlike conventional radiation, protons deposit their energy directly at a tumor target, sparing much of the surrounding, healthy tissue, which is especially important for a growing, developing brain.
Originally planning to travel to Seattle, Linda called Provision CARES Proton Therapy Knoxville and spoke with Dr. Matt Ladra about Emma’s tumor, which she described as relatively rare and very aggressive. “One of the biggest reasons we chose Provision is that Dr. Ladra really did his due diligence,” Ferrell says. “He spent a lot of time talking to experts who knew about Emma’s cancer.” Dr. Ladra concluded that Emma was a candidate for proton therapy.
First, there was surgery, which removed a portion of Emma’s tumor. Next came six rounds of chemotherapy, followed with a subsequent high-dose round, attempting to further reduce the cancer cells remaining in her body. Then there was a stem cell transplant to boost recovery of her white blood cells. After this physical onslaught, including months spent in and out of the hospital, Emma’s treatment at Provision began. She responded well to seven weeks of proton therapy, experienced only minor fatigue, and retained a good appetite most of time, gaining weight she had lost during chemo.
“It was pretty wonderful,” Linda says. “Emma’s been through quite a bit over the last year. With the treatment at Provision, it was pretty easy. I’m a huge advocate for proton therapy.”
The road to recovery was not over after treatment. Emma struggled with her appetite. Linda knows that as Emma returns to school, the process will be challenging, as she battles with the lingering effects of chemo and a year practically lost because of her illness. Emma has endured amazingly so far.
“She’s stoic, she’s stubborn, and that’s really what got her through it,” Linda said. Unselfconscious over both her surgery scar and hair loss, and through the surgery, chemo, and physical challenges, Emma’s mom said she never shed a tear. The experience has brought the family closer, especially Emma and her older sister, Sarah, now 19 and a junior pre-med student. Since Emma got sick, Linda said that Sarah’s goal has become to specialize in pediatric cancer.
With a diagnosis like Emma’s, “your whole life changes,” shared Linda. “It doesn’t end once your treated. We don’t know what the future is going to bring. But we’re so thankful to have her.”