July 21, 2006

‘Our miracle child’: 12-year-old cancer survivor and mom find love at Bethany House

By John Shaughnessy

TERRE HAUTE—Marti Green looked at the dark clouds gathering and prayed that the “miracle child” would arrive for her homecoming party before the storm struck.

The menacing clouds were part of a “tornado warning” advisory that Terre Haute had been placed under—on the same day that Green and other staff members of the Bethany House homeless shelter baked a cake, blew up balloons and made a large sign that proclaimed, “Welcome home, Desiree!”

At 12, Desiree Evans had touched the hearts of the Bethany House staff ever since she and her mother, Janet, arrived nearly a year ago at the family shelter operated by Catholic Charities Terre Haute.

But the deepness of the connection between the staff and the child became even clearer after Desiree had to be rushed to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis to try to save her life.

As lightning flashed in the distance and rain started to fall, Green worried about Desiree and Janet driving home in the storm. The shelter’s director also thought about how the mother and daughter first came to Bethany House and how people rallied around them as doctors worked to keep Desiree alive.

It’s the story of finding a home in a homeless shelter, a story of finding family and faith when it’s least expected and needed the most.

A mother’s wish and fear

At 47, Janet Evans has the same priority as many mothers. She wants to give her child a good home and a good life. As a single mother, Janet strived to do both when she had a job as a factory worker. But the company kept cutting her hours and the loss of income forced her to move into Bethany House with Desiree.

Green had known Janet years ago when Janet worked with one of her sons, when Desiree was just a baby. When Desiree arrived at the shelter, Green couldn’t believe how tall she had grown. As months passed, the director and Desiree became close. Desiree had a similar relationship with another shelter worker, Angela Cobb.

They looked out for Desiree when Janet was laid off from her job and went searching for another. They worried about the girl when she became listless and began vomiting regularly, a problem that persisted into early May.

Desiree’s doctor tried different tests and approaches, but the problem wasn’t pinpointed until Desiree complained about having headaches.

“The doctor said, ‘Let’s just take an MRI to see if something is causing the headaches,’ ” Janet recalled. “They took the MRI at eight in the morning. Before noon, the pediatrician called and asked, ‘Are you sitting down? We found a big tumor in her brain and you have to go to Riley as soon as you can.’ They sent an ambulance up here right away.”

A mother of two grown children, Green saw how the news devastated Janet. She tried to calm and comfort her. Before the ambulance rushed to Riley, Green told Janet they would pray for Desiree.

‘Our miracle child’

The number of people praying for Desiree swelled as her 13-hour surgery began. Members of St. Ann Parish in Terre Haute prayed for her. So did a seniors’ group associated with the shelter. So did students and teachers at her school, Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Terre Haute.

“None of us wanted to acknowledge the ‘C’ word, that it could be cancer,” Janet recalled. “But it turned out to be cancerous. I thought she might not come out of it.”

Janet worried and waited for the reports that she received every hour of the surgery. Green and Cobb worried and waited for news from Janet.

After 13 hours, the neurosurgeon walked into the waiting room to talk to Janet. She told Janet the surgery was a success. She also told Desiree’s mother that there was a small part of the tumor she didn’t want to risk removing because it could

jeopardize the way Desiree’s brain functioned. The doctor said they would do MRIs periodically to monitor Desiree.

“The surgeons said it was a miracle she had come through the surgery and she was doing so well,” Janet recalled. “I went into the recovery room and there she was. I couldn’t touch her because she was all hooked up to things. But I was smiling at her.”

The rejoicing stretched to the Bethany House.

“She’s our miracle child,” Green said.

As she began her recovery, Desiree made her first phone call to Green. She told her and Cobb that she couldn’t wait to see them.

After Desiree spent more than a week in the hospital, the Bethany House staff wanted to welcome her home with a

party. Besides the cake, the sign and the balloons, the staff wrapped small presents for Desiree. Then the tornado warning was declared, followed by the storm.

Green thanked God again when Desiree and Janet arrived safely at Bethany House in the midst of the storm. It didn’t even matter to anyone when the storm knocked out the electricity at the homeless shelter. Desiree and Janet were thrilled to be home. Green and the staff were glad to have them back. The celebration continued in the dark.

The ties of a family

On a recent afternoon, more than a month after the homecoming celebration, Desiree sat inside Bethany House, surrounded by her mother, Green, Cobb and John Etling, director of Catholic Charities Terre Haute.

Desiree talked about how her life has changed since the surgery.

“I started volunteering at the pre-school,” she said. “I’m doing flips under water. I’m jumping on the trampoline.”

Green smiled and said, “She’s just a regular 12-year-old kid now. She’s just a really good kid.” Green nodded toward Janet. “Janet’s a good mother. There’s a good relationship there. They’re close. Janet helps around here, too. She helps in the soup kitchen, and she helps in our clothes closet. She’s someone I can trust.”

The ties run deep. They’re the ties of people who have become a family, a

family that knows it can count on one another. They believe those bonds will serve them well as they approach the future for Desiree—a future they view with hope instead of fear.

“These are the times God is speaking to us, to keep us focused on what’s really important,” Etling said.

For Desiree and Janet, the message is clear.

“This has made her realize how much she means to everybody,” Janet said.

A huge smile flashed across Desiree’s face. “I’m special,” she said. †


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