Cancer-stricken Child Upbeat, But Family Debts Mount

Phone Only Contact For 2 1/2-year-old Girl

March 22, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff writer

WESTMINSTER — The little girl laughed and danced across the room, twirling an extra-long phone cord around her body as she chatted with her "grandmommy" on the telephone.

The 2 1/2-year-old broke into her grandmother's favorite song.

"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine," she sang softly.

For the past three months, the telephone has been Rhiannon Aliff's only contact with the world outside her home and hospital room.

"She gets more phone calls than I do," said her mother, Pattii.

Since December, Rhiannon's parents and physicians have been locked in a "desperate battle to save her life," said her father, Gene.

The Aliffs' only child has medullo blastoma, an aggressive cancer that attacks thecentral nervous system. Gene Aliff, an electronics technician with Philips Technologies in Frederick, spouts off the terms associated with his daughter's disease and treatment with the ease of any medical professional.

"You have to educate yourself to what your child is going through," he said.

During a five-hour operation, surgeons at Baltimore's University Medical Center removed the tumor from the child's brain and, so far, have found no further evidence of cancer. Doctors have ordered extensive chemotherapy to "treat any residual microscopic disease," said Dr. Ruth Luddy, a pediatric oncologist at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, where Rhiannon has become a frequent patient.

"Childhood cancer is rare," said the doctor. "Brain cancer, however, is one of the more common types found in children."

Luddy said she is cautiously optimistic about Rhiannon's recovery.

Gene Aliffsaid Rhiannon's doctors "instill great confidence" and "have a good success treatment rate."

"The doctors point to 16-year-olds they treated as young children, and call that a success" he said. "We must watch, wait and pray.

"There's no metastasis at this time, but a cell might have settled outside her nervous system. The chemo will help destroy cancer wherever it might be."

While the child undergoes the treatments, she is susceptible to other illnesses. The Aliffs, both 32, are wary of exposing their daughter to other children while her immune system is depressed. They keep her isolated from her young cousins and neighborhood friends.

Described by her mother as "always chatty," the little girl loves occasional visitors and easily rattles off descriptions of her favorite toys and books in complete sentences.

"She's really wired after a hospital stay," said her mother. "Her white blood cell count dropped last week (a frequent complication of chemotherapy), and she had to be hospitalized for four days. When she was released, it was like she had been let out of a trap."

Rhiannon cheerfully recounted the details of her latest departure fromSinai Hospital.

"I was free, out of there and off the pump," she said. "I was running to the car, and I got in my car seat. I like to come home."

Three days later, Rhiannon and her mother were back atSinai, where the child would undergo her third round of the chemotherapy. Earlier treatments destroyed 90 percent of Rhiannon's straight blond hair.

"She woke up so frightened. Her hair was all over her face and her pillow," said her mother. "Now we make a game of it. I tell her I am saving all her hair and that it will all grow back."

No longer frightened by the change in her appearance, Rhiannon proudly wears a bow on her head and shows off her "boo-boo," a four-inch surgical scar on the back of her head.

"The catheter means they don't have to stick her with needles constantly and that eliminates one fear in the hospital for her," said Pattii. "They don't have to worry about her little veins collapsing, either."

The three-day chemotherapy sessions, scheduled every 21 days, wreak havoc on Pattii Aliff'swork schedule.

"I won't leave her bedside for any reason," she said. "I have seen what children go through on chemotherapy. Sometimes,parents can't be there and I hear them crying for their mothers. It's heartbreaking."

Because of frequent prolonged absences, Pattii may lose her job as assistant parts director for R & H Motors in Owings Mills, further straining the Aliffs' budget.

"They have been supportive and have tried to save my job, but I just haven't been able to be there," she said. "I think their understanding will wear out, and they will get a replacement."

Her boss, Walter Griffin, and his wife Sherry, started a fund for Rhiannon soon after the child became ill. Other employees have contributed generously, Pattii Aliff said.

Without her income, Gene Aliff said the family is headed for serious financial problems.

They already have accumulated several thousand dollars in medical expenses which their insurance company doesn'tcover. He said the family isn't starving, but their budget is structured around two incomes.

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