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Kaityroo's family takes it one day at a time

Damascus 3-year-old is doing better, but she and her family need your help
by: patrick sherman, Kaitlyn enjoys herself on a play structure at Doernbecher Children's Hospital, following a recent chemotherapy treatment.

The unexplored frontiers of medical science and a crashed jet fighter were just a few of the obstacles standing between Katilyn Finn of Damascus and her fourth birthday.

In May, the 3-year-old girl was diagnosed with hepatablastoma, an extremely rare form of liver cancer that afflicts only one in every 2.5 million children.

'She had been kind of sick towards the end of April,' said Kaitlyn's mother, Michelle Finn, during a recent visit to Doernbecher Children's Hospital. 'She had been going to Montessori school at the time, so she was constantly being exposed to all of those runny noses.

'I thought it was more attention-seeking behavior, but even after she got over her cold, she was still complaining about her tummy hurting.'

Finn called the family's pediatric nurse, who suggested that Kaitlyn could be coming down with a flu.

'About a week later, sure enough, she got the flu,' she said. 'But then, after she got better, she started complaining about her tummy again, and she started complaining at school, which she had never done before.'

She called to make an appointment with the pediatrician, set for the Tuesday after Mother's Day. Kaitlyn grew more and more lethargic over the weekend, and fell asleep sitting on the toilet at school that Monday.

'On Tuesday morning, she wouldn't even sit up in bed, so I let her sleep until it was time to go for her appointment,' Finn recalled.

She met her husband, Patrick, at the pediatrician's office, and while they were sitting in the waiting room, the couple noticed that Kaitlyn's belly was hugely distended. Unsure if they should rush her off to the emergency room, they waited for her appointment.

'They took all kinds of tests. On the x-ray, they looked at her liver and saw calcium deposits, and the only way you get that in children is cancer,' said Finn. 'Her liver took up her whole abdomen - it was pushing up on her lungs and pushing aside her other organs.

'It had already spread to the four quadrants of her liver, which her doctor said meant that there was a 75 percent chance that she would need a transplant. The fear was also that it had spread, and in that case, it is almost always fatal.'

Warbird down

Kaitlyn immediately embarked upon three cycles of chemotherapy, each lasting three weeks. Her doctors contacted the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., to arrange for a transplant. They surgeons flew to Portland to meet their small patient, then put her on a 30-day waiting list for a donor organ.

'Within the next few days, we got the call,' Finn said. 'Once you're on the list, you have to be ready to go, 24-7. After we got the call, we had 12 hours to be in Palo Alto.'

A private jet, arranged by the family's insurance company, was on standby at the Hillsboro airport to fly them to California, but earlier that day, an F-1 Hawker Hunter that had been participating in the city's annual air show had crashed into a house shortly after takeoff, killing the pilot.

'They had like 40 blocks around the airport completely shut down,' recalled Kaitlyn's father, Patrick Finn. 'We happened to run into a Clackamas County Sheriff's reserve deputy that I knew, and he said that we couldn't get to the airport because of the crash.'

After Finn explained his urgent need to reach the airport promptly, the closed roads became a blessing for the family.

'They were closed for everyone else, but they opened them up for us and we went right through,' said Michelle Finn. 'We probably got their quicker than if there hadn't been a crash.'

Arriving in California, Kaitlyn was taken onboard an ambulance and rushed to the hospital. She was put under anesthetic in preparation for her surgery and then the doctors turned their attention to the donated organ.

'When the got into it, they discovered some abnormalities, so they declined to proceed,' Finn said. 'They said they would have gone ahead and done the surgery if she had been dying, but they thought she could hold on a little longer. We were just happy that they had looked at it so closely before going ahead with the surgery.'

A normal life

The family had been home a day and a half when their phone rang once again, with news that a second donor organ was available. This time, the surgery proceeded according to plan.

'When the anesthesiologist came out of the operating room, he told us that it was one of the smoothest transplants he'd ever been involved in for 13 years,' said Finn.

The procedure, which doctors expected would take 11 to 12 hours to complete, was finished in six. Within the day, Kaitlyn's new liver was beginning to function, and she was soon out of intensive care.

'They told us to plan to be down there for two to six months,' Finn said. 'We were home two days short of a month.'

Kaitlyn began a regimen of drugs to suppress her immune system, to prevent it from rejecting her new liver. Likely she will be required to continue that therapy for the rest of her life. She is also undergoing two additional courses of chemotherapy, in case any of the cancer cells from her liver escaped into her bloodstream.

'Although it starts in the liver, if it spreads, it usually ends up in the lungs,' said Finn. 'If that happens, it's almost always fatal.'

The precise method of treatment involves a good amount of medical guesswork, because there is no precedent for Kaitlyn's case. The chemotherapy drugs that she is taking became available just six months ago.

'They told us that 10 years ago, she would have died,' said Finn.

Her husband added, 'One of the doctors told us that we dodged a very, very big bullet, but now she can go on to have a normal lifespan. Every six months, she'll need to go in to have lab work done, but as long as she gets through all this, she'll have a normal life.'