Katherine “Kate” Hallisy

Posted by in The Patient Voice

Katherine “Kate” Hallisy

In October of 1989 our second child, Kate, was diagnosed at five months of age with bilateral retinoblastoma after malignant tumors were discovered in the retina of each eye. Normally, retinoblastoma is a treatable and curable type of cancer. The doctors were encouraging and told us optimistically, “If your child has to develop cancer, this is the kind to have.”

Unfortunately, this was not to be our daughter’s destiny. Kate’s disease was extraordinarily aggressive and she experienced several recurrences, which necessitated the removal of her right eye and two years of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The aggressive treatment seemed to be successful and for a few precious years our interaction with the health care system consisted of MRI scans, bone marrow biopsies, and several reconstructive surgeries.

In 1997, our world came to a screeching halt when Kate developed leg pain that was diagnosed as osteosarcoma. Children afflicted with retinoblastoma are particularly susceptible to developing bone cancer, but we had always hoped that our daughter would be spared. Kate was rushed to our local medical center for a biopsy to confirm the presence of the potentially life-threatening tumor.

In addition to coping with the horrors of dealing with metastatic cancer, we were immediately engulfed by formidable and unforeseen enemies – medical error, misdiagnosis, and hospital-acquired infection. Kate was infected with Staph aureus while in the operating room for a “routine” 30-minute biopsy procedure. Blood tests taken 48 hours after surgery revealed an elevated white blood count and signs of impending kidney failure – signs of severe sepsis. Kate was rushed to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and began to deteriorate rapidly. Within hours, her kidneys and lungs were failing, she required medication to maintain a blood pressure, and she was placed on a ventilator to breathe. Doctors told us they didn’t expect her to make it through the night.

Kate did survive the night but her recovery would include seven weeks in the PICU, kidney dialysis, emergency surgery to treat the infection in her biopsy site, bed sores and excruciating pain as she was weaned off the ventilator. Kate came home from the hospital for two short weeks to regain her strength and then had to return for an above-the-knee amputation of her right leg. It was a crushing blow after she had overcome almost impossible odds to survive the septic shock, but the many weeks in the PICU had allowed her cancer to grow unchecked and we could no longer pursue the “limb-sparing” surgery we had originally planned.

It was many weeks later that Kate began to verbalize her profound thoughts on her disability. “You know, I will be able to walk again with a prosthetic leg. Some people lose both legs or a leg and an arm. I have it easier than they do.” One of the many mercies Kate was shown was the inheritance of her father’s remarkable outlook on life.  What else could I do but follow her lead in the presence of such an indomitable spirit? I wouldn’t allow myself to spend much time in dark, hopeless places when I could instead choose to see the world through Kate’s eyes.