Florence family leans on Huntsville Hospital after horrific crash, childhood cancer diagnosis
Florence resident Jane Frith isn’t exaggerating when she says her family has been through a “medical whammy” over the past year.
It started in May 2015. Jane and a friend were driving in rural Colbert County when a tractor-trailer plowed into their Volkswagen, sending it tumbling down an embankment into a pond. Jane survived the wreck with the help of Huntsville Hospital’s trauma surgery team but was left paralyzed from the waist down.
Hours before Jane was scheduled to be discharged from an Atlanta rehab center in December, her three-year-old granddaughter Evie Frith went to the doctor because of a suspicious lump. Tests confirmed the worst: It was Wilm’s tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer.
As a now wheelchair-bound Jane arrived home for the first time in seven months, her son Andy and daughter-in-law Tosha were packing to leave for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
The Frith family managed to push through those dark times and has found a happier place. Jane is coming to grips with her paralysis; Evie’s long-term prognosis is excellent. On June 1, staff at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children threw a “No Mo Chemo!” party to celebrate Evie’s final chemotherapy treatment.
There were smiles and tears and presents and a Nutcracker cake. Evie wore a sequined Disney princess dress. Nurses gathered around to send the family home to Florence with a funny, hopeful song:
“Our patients have the cutest S-M-I-L-Es,
“Our patients have the sweetest H-E-A-R-Ts,
“Oh, we love to see you every day,
“But now’s the time we get to say ...
“Pack up your bags, get out the door,
“You don’t get chemo anymore.”
Jane’s husband, Tom Frith, said a happy ending didn’t seem possible on the day of the wreck. The couple was supposed to leave that afternoon, May 13, 2015, to drive to Atlanta for a Bette Midler concert.
When he couldn’t reach Jane on her cell phone after several tries, Tom got worried. He retraced the route Jane and friend Richard Thomas would have driven from Florence to his office in nearby Leighton. As he approached the intersection of 6th Street and Gnat Pond Road, Tom froze.
“There must have been 20 emergency vehicles,” he said. “I got out and asked what had happened to the people in the car. The paramedics said all they could tell me was that they had been airlifted to Huntsville Hospital.”
Jane was alive, but barely. Broken back, multiple broken ribs, broken left arm. Spinal cord damaged. Pelvis cracked in three places. Abdominal muscles torn. Large and small intestines ruptured. Left lung collapsed. Bleeding from the brain. Jane’s friend sustained less severe injuries.
Huntsville Hospital trauma surgery team led by Rony Najjar, MD, Chief of Trauma, operated on Jane for nearly six hours that night.
Jane spent three weeks in the hospital’s Surgical Trauma Intensive Care Unit, drifting in and out of consciousness much of the time. When she finally awoke, Tom was there.
He broke the news as delicately as he could: You were in a terrible accident and have been paralyzed.
Jane noticed her bright red toenails at the far end of the hospital bed. On the day of the wreck, she had treated herself to a pedicure. She tried to wiggle her toes.
“I’m a really positive person, so I just decided that whatever it took, we are going to get through this,” said Jane.
That attitude served her well as she began months of spinal cord injury rehabilitation at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. The not-for-profit rehab hospital taught Jane how to adapt to her new reality of life in a wheelchair. Jane wanted to give up at times, but then she would think about Evie.
“I just decided that I had to stay alive for Evie,” she said. “She’s the light of my life.”
Tosha Frith was getting Evie ready for bed on Dec. 2, 2015, when she noticed a bump on Evie’s side, just above the right hip. Andy Frith, Evie’s father, examined the bump and guessed it was a hematoma – a harmless pooling of blood under the skin.
“After mom’s wreck, I figured surely nothing else bad can happen to our family,” he said.
Barely 24 hours later, doctors told Andy and Tosha they had discovered a grapefruit-sized malignant tumor and four smaller tumors growing on Evie’s right kidney. They referred to her condition as Wilms’ tumor – a rare nephroblastoma, or kidney cancer, that usually strikes children between three and four years old.
The cancer was at Stage III and fairly advanced. Fortunately, it had not spread to Evie’s liver or lungs.
Tosha, who works as a nurse manager at a Florence hospital, had learned about Wilms’ tumor in nursing school. “I remember writing in my notes, ‘Wilms’ tumor = poor prognosis,’” she said.
But Evie proved to be a formidable opponent for her cancer. At St. Jude in Memphis, surgeons successfully removed her compromised right kidney and the surrounding lymph nodes. She then underwent multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
Evie responded well to treatment. She left Memphis after a month and was placed under the care of the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Huntsville Hospital for Women & Children.
‘A GREAT FEELING’
“We were super nervous leaving Memphis because it was our safety net,” said Tosha. “But we got a great feeling from the moment we stepped into the Huntsville clinic. Everyone there is wonderful. Sometimes we go and Evie’s oncologist (Jennifer Cox, MD) will sit on the floor and play with her before the appointment.”
If not for the peach-fuzz hair, most people would never guess that Evie is a cancer patient. She’s as energetic as any four-year-old and has the green light from her doctors to return to preschool.
Recent tests have shown no evidence of cancer.
“We’re just really, really, really blessed,” said Tosha.
Jane is grateful, too. She is finally healthy enough for many of the activities she enjoyed before the wreck, including volunteering at a local soup kitchen and serving on the board of Florence’s Arts Alive festival. Soon, Jane and Tom will move into a custom home with extra-wide doorways, low countertops and other wheelchair-accessible touches.
“I do have pity parties sometimes that I can’t walk,” Jane said, “but I’m so indebted to the doctors at Huntsville Hospital for keeping me alive so I can be with my family and see Evie grow up.
“Life is good.”