by Kendall Conners
In the ambulance on the way to the hospital Adrienne Villar knew something was terribly wrong. The pediatrician had given them a few diagnoses that could possibly fit her symptoms, but nothing was certain. Upon arrival to the hospital a team of nurses and doctors were already waiting for her daughter, Catalina Villar, who at this point, was in bad shape.
Catalina, who was a mere one-year-and-11 months old at the time, was immediately rushed into rigorous treatments – right away she needed three blood transfusions and three platelet transfusions. From the second she arrived at the hospital, she underwent a whirlwind of tests and treatments – she was admitted on a Wednesday, had a bone marrow biopsy on Thursday, was preliminarily diagnosed on Friday and by Monday the Villars had the official diagnosis – Catalina had Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
“It couldn’t be real, this couldn’t be happening to us,” were some of the first thoughts Adrienne Villar, Catalina’s mother, had when the doctor gave the official diagnosis.
“As the doctor was talking to us and trying to explain everything, it felt like an out of body experience,” Adrienne says. “We could see her mouth moving, but we couldn’t process the words.”
Utter shock and devastation reverberated through Adrienne and her husband Robert after hearing the diagnosis. “I think our first reaction was fear – fear of losing her,” Adrienne says. “Our second reaction was why and how? Why and how could this be happening to us?”
Having a child be diagnosed with cancer is probably one of the hardest things a parent can ever go through. “No one should ever have to see their child in this way. She was only one-year-and-11 months old and so scared,” Adrienne reflects.
After countless tests and exhausting treatments, Catalina was discharged from the hospital and finally able to go home where she felt safe and comfortable. From the time of her arrival until she was stabilized, Catalina was in the hospital for 13 days. Those 13 days were undoubtedly difficult for the Villar family. Adrienne and Robert were struggling to maintain a balanced life, juggling full-time jobs, as well as two other children.
Trying to balance all of life’s stressors while having a child sick in the hospital can be extremely daunting and exhausting. Cancer affects a family in ways that many can’t even imagine – not only does it take an emotional and psychological toll, but it’s financially straining as well. The Villars found that trying to manage the role of caretaker and the financial stressors that accompany this role to be extremely demanding and stressful.
“As anyone will tell you, cancer has so many unrelated medical costs that we as parents are responsible for,” Adrienne says. Which is one of the reasons why Adrienne and Robert wanted to do something positive in Catalina’s honor, who will be done with treatment in October, to reach out and help families who are going through the struggle of having a child with cancer.
There are many unexpected costs associated with having a child sick in the hospital. As a parent you don’t want to leave your child’s side, making for a lack of home-cooked meals and eating out three times a day, which isn’t exactly cheap for two parents. Not to mention the tremendous amount of money spent on gas travelling to and from the hospital, as well as other everyday costs that add up.
Reflecting on these factors and their experience with Catalina, Adrienne and Robert created Catalina’s Gift, which is a non-profit organization that works towards meeting the unmet needs of parents and families going through pediatric cancer. As parents who have gone through the experience themselves, Adrienne and Robert wanted to cover all the things that were most important and effective in the healing process as a family.
“The first thing we wanted parents to know was that they were not alone. You tend to forget that when you are in your hospital room secluded for so many days,” Adrienne says. “The other things we thought were very important were relieving some of the unexpected financial burden that parents experience upon diagnoses and somehow replenish their soul with good positive energy, and let them know that there is some good in the world and we care about what they are going through.”
Catalina’s Gift works with its local hospital and provides various amenities to families going through pediatric cancer. One thing that Catalina’s Gift provides is snack bags, which are given to parents upon admission at the hospital and helps them get through the days. They are filled with snacks, treats and a little hope, Adrienne says.
Catalina’s Gift also provides a snack box at the infusion clinic where the kids go once they are out of the hospital to get their ongoing treatment. You never know how long treatments will take at the clinic – it could be an hour or it could be eight hours. So Catalina’s Gift provides snacks for the parents, patients and staff of the clinic. This snack box, which is filled with hot and cold food (such as Cup of Noodle soup, Easy Mac N’ Cheese and bagels), snacks, and drinks at no cost, helps offset costs associated with purchasing food for the day and helps parents who might not be able to leave the clinic to get food.
All of the amenities, positive energy and hope provided by Catalina’s Gift makes a resounding impact on all the families going through difficult times.
“I have emails from different parents that are in the hospital with their kid saying ‘thank you so much, my daughter was just admitted and I just got your bag and I think what you’re doing is so wonderful,’” Adrienne says. “It’s really great knowing that Catalina’s Gift is making such a positive impact. The littlest things go a long way, like you might not think a bag of popcorn would mean that much, but when you’re going through a difficult time like these families are, it really does.”
Whenever Adrienne is at the hospital or clinic, parents whom she doesn’t even know will come up to her saying, “Thank you for what you do, I don’t know how you do it. We can barely take care of our kid and you find the time to do this on top of your own responsibilities.”
“That alone is reason enough to make me want to keep going and keep helping families. I know it’s needed and I know it’s greatly appreciated,” Adrienne says.
In addition to lending a helping hand to people in need, Catalina’s Gift is also a positive reminder of what Catalina went through.
“When Catalina is 15 or 16 I don’t want her to forget this period of time; Catalina’s Gift is so that she knows she went through all this for a reason, there’s a bigger and greater cause,” Adrienne says. “So it’s a positive thing and it’s positive for her to know that it’s important to give back and to help other people who are in a bad situation.”
As funding and awareness of the organization grows, Adrienne wishes to expand its services, ultimately hoping to start food delivery services involving local restaurants, as well as providing gas cards. All in all, the main goal of Catalina’s Gift and the Villar family is to reach out and help as many families as possible, providing them with amenities, comfort and hope.
“I hope to start implementing services that we have been unable to start because of funding, but my number one main goal is to grow our program so we can reach many more families in need of our services,” Adrienne says. “We continue to think of ways to best help out families.”