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St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital helping 6-year-old Mo. girl enjoy life

JEFFERSON CITY, MO (The Catholic Missourian) - Six-year-old Elaina Verslues is never afraid to go to back to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. In fact, it’s exciting for her.

“She loves to go there,” said her mother, Jill Verslues of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City. “It’s fun for her. If only we as adults could think it’s that much fun -- just to have her innocent outlook on it, to see the good in it.”

Elaina is one of thousands of kids with serious illnesses who have been treated at St. Jude this year. For the second year in a row, Elaina, her brother and sister, and their parents Ryan and Jill, plan to attend this year’s Knights of Columbus St. Jude Walk-a-Thon, which will be held from 8 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday, May 10 at the Helias Interparish High School track in Jefferson City.

The event’s main sponsors are the Knights of Columbus Father Helias and Bishop Michael F. McAuliffe councils in Jefferson City, the K of C St. Michael Council in Russellville, the K of C St. Martin Council in St. Martins, and Schulte’s Fresh Foods grocery store in Jefferson City. Participants will raise money by soliciting and collecting pledges for each lap they walk during the event. Volunteers are needed to help staff the event.

Elaina’s story

As a baby, Elaina underwent surgeries and chemotherapy to help control the growth of an inoperable brain tumor. Since last year’s Walk-a-Thon, another tumor that was discovered in her midbrain in October 2006 has grown to the point that it is requiring treatment at St. Jude.

Doctors mapped out a 52-week regimen of low-dose chemotherapy, hoping to halt the growth of the tumor, which is also close to some nerve fibers that control her arm and leg movements, until she is old enough to have radiation therapy. They are hoping to hold off on radiation therapy until Elaina is at least 12 years old.

“We’re trying to help her have the best life she can possibly have,” said Mrs. Verslues. “Life is great for Elaina,” Mrs. Verslues noted. “She is a very happy little girl, and she never complains about anything.”

Diagnosed three months after her birth with a very aggressive tumor in her midbrain, Elaina had seven brain surgeries at the University of Missouri Hospital before she was 6 months old. The tumor — technically hypothalamic glioma cancer — had wrapped itself around her hypothalamus, as well as her pituitary gland and carotid artery, and had embedded into her brain stem. On top of all of that, she had lost all of her sight.

After her first craniotomy surgery, Elaina had a two-hour seizure, and doctors had to put her into a drug-induced coma for three days.

“After that, we had no way to know how badly her brain had been damaged,” said Mrs. Verslues. “They told us we could go for chemotherapy, or that she might be so bad off that we could just stop treatment and let her die.”

When the Verslueses decided to continue treatment, the doctor suggested St. Jude, one of the finest research hospitals for children in the world.

‘A wonderful, happy place’

The Verslueses arrived by car in Memphis in the middle of the night, knowing that their daughter might be restored to health at St. Jude or might die there.

“The minute we walked through the door, we could just feel this calming spirit, this happiness, all this hope that is in the halls,” said Mrs. Verslues. “It’s a wonderful, happy place. Children love to go there. We knew we were in the best place in the country and possibly in the world for curing cancers in children.”

There, Elaina and her parents met other parents who had babies in Elaina’s situation, and sometimes worse.

“It’s like a support group,” said Mrs. Verslues. “It’s like a whole new extended family. They know what you’re going through.” Whatever the Verslues’ insurance didn’t cover, the hospital pays for, along with Elaina’s epilepsy medication.

Her cancer was in remission by her second birthday. “She’s our little miracle,” her mother said last spring.

When Elaina was about 1, she began to regain some of her sight, reminding the rest of her family of the story about Jesus healing a man who had been blind from birth. When asked why the man had been so afflicted, Jesus answered, “It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” (John 9:3)

“That’s how we look at Elaina,” said Mrs. Verslues. “She gets people praying who haven’t prayed for a long time. She’s an inspiration for a lot of people. She loves life.”

Close to home

For Elaina’s current treatment, St. Jude is working with the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics, meaning Elaina can receive most of her treatment in Columbia instead of Memphis. “We go to MU’s pediatric oncology unit once a week for the low-dose chemo,” said Mrs. Verslues. “That means we can stay home and live our normal life.”

Elaina is having eye surgery at St. Jude this summer on both of her eyes in hopes to improve her visual acuity. She has a neurological disorder called nystagmus that causes her eyes to bounce back and forth, making it hard to focus and giving her double vision.

Elaina is lucky that the side effects of her cancer treatments have been mild.

“We continue to watch her blood counts on a weekly basis to ensure her health. She has only been hospitalized four times thus far in her protocol,” said Mrs. Verslues. “I’ve thought all along that the treatment is being so nice to her, I can’t believe it’s actually working,” she noted. “She hasn’t been sick, and she’s going to kindergarten.”

And when Elaina does have to go to St. Jude for treatment and follow-up every eight weeks, she enjoys the trip. “She’s doing great; we’re all doing great,” said Mrs. Verslues. “We just thank God for His blessings every day.”

Believing in miracles

Robert Haslag, a member of St. Martin parish and Knights of Columbus Council 7194 in St. Martins, who is coordinating the event, hopes it will generate more than $10,000 for St. Jude.

“By participating in or attending the event, you will help raise funds for children of the world who are stricken with diseases such as cancer, AIDS, and Sickle Cell anemia,” said Mr. Haslag. “These funds will help St. Jude in its ongoing fight against childhood cancer and other catastrophic diseases.”

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is internationally recognized for its pioneering work in finding cures and saving children with cancer and other catastrophic diseases. It has the largest childhood cancer research center in the world and freely shares its discoveries with scientific and medical communities around the world.

All patients accepted for treatment at St. Jude are treated without regard to the family’s ability to pay. St. Jude is financially supported by ALSAC, its fundraising organization, through events such as the local Knights’ Walk-a-Thon.

“St. Jude is what has given us hope,” said Mrs. Verslues. “We do believe in miracles. Elaina is one of them.”

( For information about volunteering, participating or making a private or corporate donation to the St. Jude Walk-a-thon, call Robert Haslag at 573-584-3525 or e-mail: bobhaslag@juno.com. St. Jude’s website is at www.stjude.org.)

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1 - 1 of 1 Comments

  1. Madasen
    4 years ago

    Hi my name is madasen and i am 15 years old. My grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008 and is undergoing lots of treatments. I pray for her each day and i will now pray for Elaina also. After i read her story it touched my heart that such a inocent baby girl had to go through all of that. I am praying for her and her family and i hope all is going well and continues to be a miracle.
    Bless the family and friends of Elaina and i would hold her close in my heart through my prayers and thoughts every moment.

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