'Life is Sweeter with Her Here'
Rachel Neeley can best be described as a free-spirited, creative and thoughtful young girl who is known for her sparkling brown eyes and contagious laugh. As a lover of nature, she likes to feel her toes in the grass, collect stuffed tree frogs and do her part to keep the world beautiful. She once persuaded her father, Jeff, to climb onto the hood of the family car, step on top of a concrete wall and pull a plastic bag out of a leafless tree.
Rachel’s free spirit and determination make her stand out in a crowd. Those personality traits also helped her tackle a rare cancer diagnosis at the tender age of 3.
In October 2007, after Rachel experienced a second unexplained fever in a month and nagging pain in her stomach and back, her parents raced her to the Emergency Room at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center. Rachel’s parents and pediatrician feared appendicitis.
A CT scan ruled out appendicitis but revealed masses in the little girl’s kidneys. A biopsy confirmed bilateral Wilms tumor – a tumor in each of her kidneys. The tumor on the right was considerably larger than that on the left, consuming about 75 percent of the organ. It appeared there would be little hope of saving the right kidney.
Rachel began a 10-week course of chemotherapy, an anxious and difficult time made less frighten¬ing by the hospital’s pet therapy program. A specially trained dog named Gracie, a golden retriever, became Rachel’s best friend during the arduous treatments.
Rachel’s mother, Jen, said that Gracie became a very important part of Rachel’s treat-ment. “We could tell Rachel sought refuge in her. Gracie would walk up to Rachel and put her head in her lap, and Rachel would always end up hugging her.”
Children’s specialists used the chemotherapy to shrink the tumors before performing surgery on Rachel. The huge tumor in her right kidney had shrunk enough to be removed. The surgery was successful, and both kidneys were saved.
After surgery, Rachel underwent six days of radiation treatment and five more cycles of chemother¬apy. By April of 2008, her medical team was confident the cancer was gone. She returns to the hospital every three months for a check-up and scans.
Today, Rachel is doing well. “It’s been such a wonderful thing to get our child back and to have such an amazing place like Children’s here in Omaha,” said Jeff.
Rachel’s parents credit Dr. Elizabeth Thompson, pediatric oncologist, and Dr. Shahab Abdessalam, pediatric surgeon and surgical oncologist, for saving Rachel’s kidneys – and her life.
“When Dr. Abdessalam told us the chemo was shrinking the tumors, and he had a good chance of saving her right kidney, his excitement – his joy in telling us that – it was as if Rachel was his own child,” Jeff said.
Today, unless Rachel shows you the scars on her stomach, you wouldn’t even know she was so ill. She loves going to preschool, riding her bike, having water fights with her younger sister Madison, and playing on the swing set in the back yard.
“I am not sure if it was her sickness or the way she handled it, but for our family, I know that the sun is a little brighter, the trees are greener, frogs and ponies are more fun, and life is sweeter with her here,” Jen said.