Ronald McDonald House
A Family United
By Gene Davis
Having one of your children stricken with leukemia is challenging and frightening enough, but imagine what it must be like to have two of your children both coming down with the disease almost within a year of each other. If it were you, how would you react? How would you cope with having your world turned upside down – twice? One could only hope to handle it with as much poise and purpose as the Spence family is mustering right now.
Originally from Mililani, Dan and Elaine Spence relocated to Hilo in 2008, when Dan accepted a position with a water bottling company there. Then, in 2010, just as the couple and their four children, Jordan, 19, Elexis (Lexi), 16; Angelina, 13; and Danielle, 10, were starting to settle into a comfortable routine in their new home and schools, everything suddenly changed. It changed when their doctor uttered the word “leukemia.” Lexi was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), an aggressive form of blood cancer, as she was beginning her sophomore year at Hilo High School.
At first the family was in shock. “It‘s something that happens to someone else‘s kid, not your own,” Dan mused. But soon, he took charge, and came up with a strategy to give Lexi the best chance to get well. It involved great sacrifices by the whole family, as they all moved temporarily to Oregon, near Doernbecher Children‘s Hospital, to be with Lexi during her bone–marrow transplant and treatments. Lexi‘s sisters enrolled in school there and Jordan, a college freshman, transferred to a university near Portland. Dan had to go back and forth to Hilo, tending to his job there.
Lexi‘s treatments and follow–up care in Oregon lasted more than nine months. To keep the family together up on the mainland, Dan and Elaine used all of their savings and retirement funds. It took an emotional toll on everyone too, but they managed to get through it. Lexi‘s AML went into remission, she grew her hair back, and they all began to dare think about returning to the happy routine they had enjoyed together in Hilo. But it wasn‘t meant to be.
In November 2011, about two months after getting back from that unexpected and unwanted adventure, unbelievably, Angelina was diagnosed with leukemia too. It was a different type than Lexi‘s called Acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The Spences again found themselves facing difficult challenges and needed to rearrange their lives to stay close to Angelina, who is still in the early stages of her lengthy treatments on Oahu. They are currently staying together at the Ronald McDonald House, continuing to draw strength from each other. “This time around it‘s both easier and harder,” Dan said. “It‘s easier, because we know the routine and what to expect. On the other hand, we‘ve stretched our resources as far as they can go.” It is also harder for them to hide the strain they all are feeling.
Like her sister Lexi, Angelina is growing up faster than she probably should have to. She still dreams of traveling to places like Paris and New York, becoming a chef and having her own restaurant someday, but through her experiences, she has developed a burning desire to help others. Lexi hascome through her treatments feeling the same way, and the two, along with Danielle, have made plans to start a non–profit dedicated to helping kids with cancer and their siblings. Of course, Lexi would also like to do something with her singing. She has sung with Alicia Keys, performed the national anthem at a professional soccer game in Oregon, and sang for the 900 people in attendance at the RMHC–HI Gala last November, which was her second performance following her treatments.
“The whole experience has brought our family closer,” shared Lexi. “And we don‘t take things for granted anymore. We really appreciate each other,” added Elaine.
As tough as things are, the Spences have found a place to nest on Oahu at the Ronald McDonald House. “You folks went out of your way to accommodate our whole family, making sure that we were taken care of,” said Elaine. “Everybody is so friendly. They make you feel comfortable. Like at Christmas, all the kids got presents and that made them happy and made them smile.”
Dan credits the Ronald McDonald House for helping to take care of the family‘s day–to–day things. “It‘s really taken the burden off of me as the father. So basically, we can wake up, eat and go to the hospital. There are some really good people at the Ronald McDonald House—whether it‘s staff or other families staying here. Instead of feeling so isolated, we‘ve met some new people. We have made some bonds, and it keeps our spirits up.”
Although fighting through severe nausea every day and seeing her hair fall out, Angelina is very aware of people offering their assistance. “It‘s nice when you receive the help,” said Angelina, choking back tears. “It‘s why Lexi and I want to have our foundation to help others. It makes you have a good day. When I see people helping me, I want them to be happy because they are making me happy.”
The family wants everyone to know how important bone marrow drives are and is encouraging the public to join the bone marrow registry. “It could save a life,” said Dan.
There‘s more information about donating bone marrow on Lexi‘s website, www.bonemarrowforlexi.com.