Imagine if your child was so sick that you had to choose between remaining by her bedside and paying your mortgage.
That is exactly the dilemma facing the parents of an 8-year-old Oak Lawn girl who became infected with West Nile virus while undergoing chemotherapy for acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Perry Austin and Patti McElheny, parents of Sarah McElheny, have stayed by their daughter’s side since Aug. 3, when Sarah entered Advocate Hope Children’s Hospital.
Sarah was an active, healthy second-grader at Columbus-Manor Elementary School in Oak Lawn when on March 8 her parents received the devastating news that their "funny and tough" daughter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The second-grader immediately began a regimen of chemotherapy with a 90-percent cure rate. Sarah was sailing through treatments up until August 3, when she told her doctor that she wasn’t feeling well before a chemotherapy session.
Sarah’s doctor decided to keep her overnight at Hope Children's as a precautionary measure.
By the end of the evening, Sarah was in a coma and diagnosed with the dreaded West Nile virus. Family members told Patch that the 8-year-old had not traveled out of the area over the summer, and is believed to have been bitten locally by an infected mosquito.
Almost a month to the day after Sarah slipped into a coma, her parents and family members got their first glimpse of her bright blue eyes when she opened them for the first time.
Her aunts, Lorie McElheny and Lynn Howard, the family spokeswomen, say that Sarah is now out of her coma. She sits up in a chair and watches television. Her eyes are clear and she looks straight at her parents and visitors when they are speaking to her.
“She responds to voices more so now,” Lynn Howard said. “She feels you touching her leg or foot, her arm and her hands. You know she hears you but she can’t respond. She’s up for hours now where before she wouldn’t do that.”
While Sarah is still breathing with the assistance of a ventilator, Howard said she is very alert.
“She breathes a lot on her own,” Howard said. "The goal is to get her off the ventilator.”
Sarah, however, is still not speaking. Speech therapists come in daily to work with her on such simple exercises as swallowing.
“It’s improvement. We’ll take it,” Lorie McElheny says.
Her parents, Perry Austin and Patti McElheny, a respiratory therapist at Advocate Christ Medical Center, stopped going to work to be with their daughter. Sarah’s aunts, Lynn and Lorie, are also nurses’ assistants at the hospital, and a cousin, Lauren Howard, works in admitting in the ER.
Patti’s colleagues have rallied around her, stopping by Hope Children’s pediatric intensive care unit to visit and pray for Sarah. Their prayers comfort Sarah who loves going to Bible school.
There is still the matter of Sarah’s leukemia. She has resumed chemotherapy treatments, which were temporarily suspended while she battled West Nile virus. “She keeps progressing,” Lynn says. “To be so sick and get chemotherapy treatment on top of it.”
Sarah is likely to remain at Hope Children’s for another ten weeks. Doctors are still not sure if the eight-year-old will fully recover, yet her brain continues to heal.
A fundraiser, Smiles for Sarah, is being held for the family at 115 Bourbon Street on Sunday, Oct. 14. Organizers expect 1,000 or more to turn out for the benefit. Proceeds will go toward Sarah’s medical bills—already in the hundreds of thousands of dollars—and to help her parents with every day expenses, like paying the mortgage.
An impressive array of raffle prizes and gift baskets—including a football signed by the 1985 Chicago Bears and other sports memorabilia—has been assembled.
Gift baskets will be accepted up until Saturday (Oct. 13) and can be dropped off at Jesse’s Tavern at 10501 S. Ridgeland Ave. (105th Street and Ridgeland, next the Chicago Ridge Police Station) in Chicago Ridge.
“We’re going to celebrate Sarah,” Lynn Howard said. “She’s been through a lot.”
"Smiles for Sarah" runs from 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday Oct. 14, at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W 115th Street, in Merrionette Park. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door, and includes a buffet dinner, beer and wine. All donations are tax-deductible. To buy a ticket, donate a prize or for more information, visit the website, or drop off checks made payable to "Smiles for Sarah" at any Archer Bank.