Caliah “Cali” Russell was just three years old when she and her family’s world was turned upside down. After Cali had become increasingly lethargic, pale and irritable, her parents, Mindy and Josh Russell, knew that something was wrong. However, they could not have imagined the diagnosis.
An appointment with the pediatrician led them to Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, where on August 27, 2010, Cali received a diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Life instantly changed for Cali and the Russell family.
Treatment started immediately, and Cali stayed in the hospital for weeks at a time. Her parents were always by her side but helping a three-year-old understand medical procedures and hospital sleepovers takes a special type of caregiver. The Child Life Specialists at the hospital played games with Cali to help her feel comfortable with the procedures, as well as her doctors and nurses.
Being a creative little girl, Cali had nicknames for her equipment—her IV pole was “George,” the port in her chest was “Heffalump,” the numbing cream her doctors used was “magic toothpaste,” and “Flutter” is the needle that the doctors used to take blood samples. The staff at the hospital called Cali’s equipment by name, too.
“The staff is incredible,” said Cali’s mother. “Everything they do is geared to kids and helping children as young as Cali understand what’s happening and explaining why they’re doing things. They have a way of making kids feel comfortable with what’s going on.”
Most importantly, children such as Cali receive oncology and pediatric services close to home at Golisano Children’s Hospital, which is located right in the heart of Fort Myers, Florida. Mindy spent the first six weeks by her daughter’s side, camped out in her hospital room. So being close to home was beneficial to the entire family, especially as they balanced her needs with those of her two-month old younger brother Cooper. Without the hospital, the family would have been forced to seek the same type of expert care in Miami or St. Petersburg.
“It truly helped that we didn’t have to drive all over Florida to get her the best care,” her mother added. “People just don’t understand how lucky we are to have specialized pediatric oncology right here in Southwest Florida.”
After more than two years, Cali finished treatment on Nov. 1, 2012, and her medi-port was removed the following July. She is now a 10-year cancer survivor! Cali’s parents believe that their daughter would not be where she is today without the Golisano Children’s Hospital team and donations made from generous members of the community. Together with the staff at Golisano Children’s Hospital, they faced Cali’s illness with positive attitudes and plenty of imagination.
Today, Cali is a healthy 13-year-old – a dramatic contrast to the hairless but always-grinning preschooler who began undergoing treatment all those years ago. Yet, she is still very much a part of the Golisano Children’s Hospital family.
In fact, Cali and her family have been regular attendees at Golisano Children’s Hospital events throughout her childhood. For example, Cali and her family played a starring role in the $100-million capital campaign to build the new Golisano Children’s Hospital campus, adjacent to where she received treatment at HealthPark. Now, as a teenager, she is helping to ensure children at the new hospital get the wonderful care they deserve, and that their families get the support they need to pay for lifesaving medical care.
Cali will continue her outreach by participating in the annual Clips for Cancer event on Friday, Sept. 4 and Friday, Sept. 18. On Friday, Sept. 4, Cali will shave the head of the doctor who helped save her life – Dr. Emad Salman – who will face the razor to show solidarity and raise awareness for children who are battling cancer today. Cali will also shave the head of Lee Health President & CEO, Larry Antonucci, MD on Friday, Sept. 18. All funds raised through Clips for Cancer will benefit Barbara’s Friends Hematology and Oncology Program at Golisano Children’s Hospital, which now sees an average of 400 outpatient visits a month. Supporters of this inspiring event will help ensure that many more young cancer patients living in Southwest Florida receive the specialized care they need close to home.