It was a typical Sunday morning, in early May. Capt. Michael Baker and his wife were walking their five children, all under age 10, into mass. Stationed in Germany at the time, the Army officer patted the back of his 4-year-old Emma's head, and felt, underneath her long, brown hair, her lymph nodes were swollen. In that moment, he knew something wasn't right.
The next day, they took Emma, their second-to-youngest child, to the doctor. Shortly thereafter, on May 21, Emma was diagnosed with cancer, Baker said. Two days later, the family boarded a plane bound for the states so Emma could receive treatment from the renowned Pediatric Hematology/Oncology department at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC).
"Not one, but seven people's lives took a really drastic change. It was very abrupt," Baker said, explaining the whirlwind experience. "You could say [our children] grew up in Germany. They didn't know what it was really like to live in the states. We'd been [overseas] for five years."
As they digested the news and adjusted to their new surroundings, Baker said they soon learned their daughter in fact had acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the tissue inside the bones where blood cells are made. The disease is the most common type of cancer in children, he added, and though it can progress rapidly if untreated, it is fortunately accompanied with an 80 to 90 percent survival rate.
ALL can be associated with bruising, bleeding, severe bone or joint pain, and weakness, Baker continued. Aside from Emma's enlarged lymph nodes, he said their otherwise happy, energetic girl showed no other signs.
"She looked so healthy," he said. "This is something you never, in a million years, think is going to happen to you."
Baker said his family received outpouring support from a number of Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) charities, which lifted the burden of their transportation and housing needs, allowing their family to focus on Emma's treatment.
"They mitigated a lot of the burdens placed on a family that's dealing with such a traumatic situation," he added.
CFC organizations also frequently decorate the department's outpatient infusion room, organize holiday parties, and bring in snacks and toys, lifting the spirits of the children and their families.
Baker went on to note the generosity of WRNMMC's Pediatric Hematology/Oncology department.
"That was another thing that made it easier for us to make our transition here. They're completely warm and inviting," Baker said. "You can see they're involved, and they care about what they do. We didn't feel like we were just another patient. I wouldn't want my daughter to be anywhere else." WRNMMC's Pediatric Hematology Oncology department provides inpatient and outpatient services for children and adolescents diagnosed with cancer, tumors and bone marrow failure syndromes, said Dr. Thomas Newton, the department's division chief.
The pediatric oncologist explained the department's staff members do their best to keep kids out of the hospital as often as they can, even if it means working late, after their shift ends. Whenever possible, they administer treatments on an outpatient basis, and/or allow them to take their treatments at home, so they can try to have a normal life, Newton added.
"Our priority here is taking care of our patients," he said.
Each year, Walter Reed Bethesda's Pediatric Hematology/Oncology department admits approximately two or three dozen new patients, most of whom must continue to come in for treatment for a number of years, he said. Compared to large, children's hospitals, the department's patient load is rather low, and that allows far more personalized care, Newton explained.
"We're able to provide very personalized and very supportive care," he said.
The department includes a check-in area, as well as a conference room where families can meet privately with their providers, he continued. Additionally, there are three exam rooms, allowing patients to conveniently come in and out, should they only need a quick treatment.
Filled with bright colors, festive decorations, toys and games, the outpatient infusion room is divided into six bays, where patients may receive infusion treatments such as chemotherapy.
In addition to the department's involvement in research, they have nutritionists, social workers, and a child life specialist, dedicated to providing art, games and entertainment, he said.
Newton went on to explain the benefits of bringing military children into their care. Many of the staff members are serving on active duty, and can relate to their needs.
"We know how to get them over here, get their family re-situated as quickly as possible, [and] get the active duty [member] lined up with a new position in the area," Newton said. "We understand the needs of the active duty member. We do our best to keep them on track," he said, in terms of their military career. "They still have those opportunities, but at the same time, they're able to be here for their children, and their children get the care they need."
For the Baker family, their outlook remains positive, Baker said. Right now, Emma receives various chemotherapies and steroids. She is in a delayed intensification phase, during which she must be closely monitored, as her immune system is weak and where they anticipate blood transfusions. The bright-eyed toddler will continue her treatment for about two more years, and once she's been in remission for five years, odds are the cancer will not return, Baker said.
"If there's a way of treating her, [the staff members] are going to find it, and they're going to use it. That's it," he said. "You're still going to have your moments, but you really just trust that this is where you are, and we're in good hands."
To keep up with Emma's journey, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/emmabaker. An email address must be provided to enter. For information on how to donate to the CFC, which runs through Dec. 15, visit www.cfcnca.org.