When you arrive to the hematology and oncology unit at CHOC Children’s Hospital, there’s someone you won’t miss — and if you do, he’ll make sure you notice him.
Three-year-old Austin, a CHOC patient, is a bundle of energy and can often be found running around in a costume, jamming out to his favorite music or yelling out, “Hi!” to everyone who passes his hospital room. He is your typical toddler, except for one thing — he has cancer.
Austin was diagnosed earlier this year with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) with FLT3-ITD and NPM1 mutations. Before his diagnosis, Austin had constant and unexplained fevers, bone pain, loss of appetite and extreme fatigue. His pediatrician, Dr. John Carruth, ordered a blood test that showed an alarmingly high white blood cell count.
Austin’s parents, Kristen and John, were told by Dr. Carruth to bring Austin immediately to CHOC.
“It felt like a surreal nightmare walking onto the fifth floor at CHOC and seeing the words ‘cancer unit,’” says Kristen. “It was the most afraid I’ve ever been in my life.”
Due to Austin’s cancer mutations, his parents were told he may need a bone marrow transplant. This kind of transplant can often be a cure for certain oncology diagnoses, but the process is not easy — especially for a young child. Thankfully, his oncologist Dr. Jamie Frediani is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest research and new studies within pediatric oncology, and she knew that children with similar mutations to Austin’s can do much better without having to undergo a transplant.
“Knowledge is constantly evolving, and with it our treatment strategy — giving patients like Austin an improved prognosis,” says Dr. Frediani.
Austin’s care plan moved forward with five rounds of chemotherapy, but that was just one part of the battle. A few weeks after Austin was admitted, California enacted stay at home orders due to COVID-19 and CHOC’s visitor guidelines were revised in the interest of curbing the spread of the pandemic.
During the past few months, there were moments that were especially hard for Austin – but he was never fighting alone. Although he experienced nausea, an allergic reaction, a fungal infection in his lungs, high fevers, painful mouth sores and overall body pain, Austin and his parents had an entire team fighting alongside them.
“The staff, doctors, nurses, child life specialists, music therapists and all our other cancer-fighting friends on our floor have been so loving and friendly,” says Kristen. “You never want to hear your child has cancer, but if it means you get to meet wonderful and inspiring people along the way, then this entire experience is made a little easier and a lot less painful.”
As much as CHOC’s staff has made an imprint on Austin’s heart, he has done the same for them in return. While attached to his IV pole, Austin sprints through the halls daily introducing his bright personality to those around him, bravely shows off his superhero-fighting moves to all the nurses and has chosen to be happy every day for the 163 days he has been at CHOC.
Under the care of Dr. Frediani and the oncology team, Austin’s chemotherapy treatment has gone well, and he was recently able to return home. Going forward, he’ll have regular follow-up appointments with his care team. Austin and his parents are excited for him to start pre-school, take a karate class, play on a baseball team and continue to lift people up wherever he goes.
“As much as we’re excited to move on with our lives, I hope Austin remembers this experience,” says Kristen. “I hope he remembers the hard things he did, the fears he overcame, the people he met. I hope he remembers just how brave he was and how much braver he will be because of this.”
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