The Jerzak Family
Gallery: The Jerzak Family [7 Images] Click any image to expand.
I went to my family doctor thinking I maybe had bronchitis and, due to a low white blood cell count, I was sent to a hematologist/oncologist who wanted to do a bone marrow biopsy. The next day I had my biopsy, and they called at 4:30 the same day and asked us to come back. After hearing the crushing news that I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia, my first thought was of the children finding out I needed immediate medical attention and how I was going to share this overwhelming information with them. David and I left the doctor’s office knowing that in a few short days I would be going into the hospital for the first of what could be many 4-6 week stays and lots of uncertain times.
How did you explain your illness to your children?
They don’t teach you about how to handle these things. All we could do was hope we’d get it right. I remember telling Taylor, Blake, and Chandler (ages 14, 12 and 3 at the time) that I had Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) and that I was going to have to go into the hospital soon to receive treatment. I think I was crying from the second I saw their innocent little faces.
My daughter Blake had the toughest time initially. We had no idea what to do, but she had a student counselor that she liked very much that had been battling cancer for some time. We called the school, and the counselor was happy to talk with Blake. She calmed Blake down and gave Blake some tools to deal with her anxiety about what was about to take place. Taylor was shaken up at first, but her real emotions came out when my mother showed up and cut my ponytail off to donate to Locks of Love. I was shocked by this, but Taylor associated me cutting off my hair off (which I loved) with CANCER becoming real.
My son Chandler was too young at the time to openly express any emotions immediately, but his anxiety came later in the form of fear. He was afraid of seeing me with the mask I had to wear and the machine I had connected to me at all times. He slowly warmed up to “Medi-Man,” mom’s personal robot, and the nurses found a Mickey Mouse mask that he could wear. Over time he got used to coming to the hospital when he was allowed (which wasn't much) and spending time with his bald, robot-toting, masked mother. I don’t think he understands that all children don’t have a mommy who was once bald and spent a year and half of their childhood in an out of long hospital stays.
It was a devastating feeling to have my children so scared but no idea what the “right” way to handle things is. We just tried to be as honest as possible, but always reassured them that we had our eye on the prize, and the prize was regaining my health so we could get our family back to business as usual.
What advice do you have for families in a similar situation?
The people that offered support were completely overwhelming, so my best advice to other families going through something similar is first of all, be honest. Kids can handle anything as long as you are open and honest. Second, remain positive in the face of any struggle that might pop up. The way you handle big scary issues is how they will too. And, most of all, lean on the help and support of others to get your family through it. I remember saying to people, “I can’t accept that” because I kept thinking, “How will I ever repay everyone for all their kindness?” But lots of folks reminded me if tables were turned I would do the same thing for anyone else that needed me. I eventually came to terms with the fact that we needed these loving people to survive. The love, friendship and prayers that our family received are what kept us going every day.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I believe that attitude is everything when faced with a crisis. I am not saying I wasn’t scared, but I always tried to be present in every moment that I got with my children. When my babies were at the hospital, I gave them every ounce of happiness and energy I could muster up. We had long talks, fun games and lots of laughs during what I consider to be the worst and best of times for us. Anytime one of us was down, we did all we could to make them feel better, always talking about and looking to the future. I am sure there were times my children felt like mom was soaking up all the attention and there wasn't enough time for them (that is a very human and normal feeling to have), but my family, friends and myself made huge efforts to keep them in the forefront. They always knew they had someone they could talk to about anything, and nothing was off limits. No one would be judged for any feeling they might be having. As long as my doctors held out hope that I would survive, that is all we focused on as a family.