Imagine an 11-week-old baby in the hospital, beginning chemotherapy treatment.
This was Tessa’s reality when her mom, Christy, brought her to HSC Children’s Hospital back in 2020 and baby Tessa was diagnosed with retinoblastoma— she had a tumour in her left eye.
“I was thinking all kinds of bad things, but at no point did cancer come to my mind. So, I think just hearing that was very shocking,” Christy says.
Tessa was born in November of 2019 but just a couple of weeks after being brought home Christy and her husband Ryan noticed that something was wrong with Tessa’s vision.
They brought their concerns up at Tessa’s two-month pediatrician checkup. The doctor acknowledged something was wrong with Tessa’s visual reflexes but sent her home for her mom and dad to monitor. The day after the appointment, Christy kept trying to catch Tessa’s attention.
“I was saying her name over and over, but she never made eye contact with me. And then I knew, I just knew this was not right,” she says.
At 10 weeks old an optometrist referred them to the ophthalmology team at HSC Children’s Hospital. Christy brought Tessa into the clinic where an ultrasound revealed a mass.
Tessa needed to go under anesthesia for an MRI and was officially diagnosed with retinoblastoma in her left eye. She started chemo the next week.
“She was pretty itty bitty,” Christy says.
After 10 months post-chemo, Tessa’s tumour was looking stable. Until it wasn’t. In March 2021, her doctors started to see regrowth, and they instructed the family to take Tessa to Toronto for an experimental clinical trial.
The trial has been successful in keeping the tumour from growing. Now, Tessa goes for follow-up appointments every three months at HSC Children’s.
In November of 2023, Tessa celebrated her fourth birthday. She is thriving and for fun, likes to play pretend.
“She has such a funny personality. She has lots of play battles, especially against daddy,” Christy says.
Tessa also loves her three older sisters, Karly, Kacey and Jana, puzzles, building blocks, and the TV show called Blaze and the Monster Machines. She dresses up in a blue sparkly dress and runs around the house, shooting magical ice crystals from her hands.
“She’s never even fully seen the movie, but she’s Frozen and she’s freezing everything,” Christy says.
Even though her left eye is legally blind, Tessa’s medical issues rarely slow her down. The tumour blocks her central vision, but she has some peripheral receptors. This means she can still make out shapes, shadows, and small colour distinctions.
Every day Tessa needs to cover her right eye with a patch to remind her brain to continue using the eye that’s been affected by cancer, otherwise she’ll become too dependent on the fully functional eye.
“For four hours a day, she’s legally blind. But functionally- you wouldn’t know it.”
Christy says when Tessa is patching, she’s still able to feed herself, dress herself, and look through books. When she’s not patching, she wears glasses just for protection. Christy says it’s important for Tessa to protect her eyes with the eyeglasses, especially the fully functioning right eye.
Christy also is a part of the team at HSC Children’s as a physiotherapist. She says she understands what it’s like from both sides – as the health care worker and now as the parent whose child is affected.
“Because I work there, I think it’s changed me personally,” she says. “The Children’s Hospital and the teams that we’ve been involved with… we feel a bit like they’re family.”
During Tessa’s time in the hospital, the Child Life team – a group of specialists in childhood development and coping with life in the hospital – would bring out colouring pages, kids’ books, magic wands, and more to help entertain and comfort Tessa and her siblings.
“The team has always been good about trying to make the kids be a part of it and understand what she’s going through.”
Christy says her family is extremely grateful.
“There’s a comfort and a confidence knowing that we get such great care.”
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