Looking at Maddie Crokin now – a vivacious, sweet, almost 6-year-old who loves to dance and make art – you’d never guess she’s spent the last four years battling cancer. But thanks to the array of treatments she’s received at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge and University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital, Maddie is now completely off treatment therapies and able to focus on more important things like playing with her big sister, Callie, and starting gymnastics.
On a normal afternoon in October 2016, Angela Crokin was tickling her happy 19-month-old daughter’s belly to the sounds of her sweet giggles. All of a sudden, she felt a lump. This began what she calls “a parent’s worst nightmare.” Right away, Angela and her husband, Kevin, rushed Maddie to her pediatrician, who quickly sent them to the ER for an ultrasound. It was later that day they found out their baby had stage 3 high-risk neuroblastoma cancer.
“The feeling was indescribable when I heard the diagnosis; I literally felt as though the world was crumbling beneath me,” Angela said. “I dropped to my knees and was speechless. No words could describe the way I felt.”
The diagnosis in 2016 began years of treatment and hospital stays. Maddie went through numerous surgeries to resection her tumor, seven rounds of chemotherapy, several blood transfusions, a stem cell transplant, radiation, immunotherapy, biopsies, multiple other therapies and more. The family, who lives in Volo, Ill., spent much of the last four years commuting to both hospitals in Park Ridge and Chicago for Maddie’s treatments.
Through it all, Maddie kept smiling. Maddie’s parents describe her as a highly resilient, optimistic and articulate little girl who’s very mature for her age. She’s their “little bulldog.” Angela and Kevin say the biggest thing that kept them going through Maddie’s years of treatment – besides the unwavering support and selflessness of their families and friends – was staying as optimistic as possible.
“You keep telling yourself every day to stay positive,” Kevin said. “The crazy thing is, when you’re going through something like this as a parent, you have to shut off that part of your brain that would even consider anything other than positivity. We avoided negativity and sought out support from parents of children with neuroblastoma who had a positive outcome.”
Some of Maddie’s treatments – like the stem cell transplant, required the family to be at the hospital for more than a month at a time. This was one of the most difficult parts of the journey, as the family was isolated and unable to leave the hospital. They wouldn’t see their eldest daughter, Callie, for a month, leaving Angela, Kevin and Maddie all heartbroken.
But the nurses and doctors became a second family to the Crokins during these long stays. At Advocate Children’s, team members brought Maddie her favorite snacks and decorated her room for Halloween. Nurse Kelsey brought Angela coffee to make her smile – and nurse Jenny always led with kindness. During immunotherapy – one of the most stressful parts of Maddie’s treatment – the entire PICU nursing team provided rock-solid support to the Crokins.
At Comer, Maddie made a special connection with Stem Cell Transplant Pediatric Nurse Miranda Foote. During one of the most stressful times they can recall, Angela said it was the people who made such a difference.
“It was just a really great feeling walking in the doors knowing how much the team loved and cared for Maddie,” Angela said. “They really made it feel as comfortable and home-like as much as possible.”
Maddie’s parents were also grateful to the team members who helped to keep fun and play integrated into her long days of treatment.
“I didn’t want my daughter to be defined by the sickness that she had – I wanted Maddie to be Maddie,” Kevin said. “We kept her around as much positivity as possible, and the teams at both hospitals made that so much easier for us.”
One of Advocate Children’s Child Life Specialists, Kevynne Chawla, learned quickly what Maddie liked to play with and would bring her toys and activities tailored to her interests. Kevynne would bring arts and crafts – specifically her favorites of Play-Doh and Model Magic – so she could have moments of normalcy and just focus on play.
At Comer, Art Therapist Sue Yoshihara and Child Life Specialist Kaylee O’Brien were incredibly accommodating and took extra time to learn what Maddie liked to do. One afternoon they made Paw Patrol characters out of tape and medical supplies. Another day it was making Godzilla out of a cardboard box and painting it.
“They lived for that smile on her face,” Angela said. “They wouldn’t just grab a toy off the shelf and bring it to her room. They were so thoughtful in bringing activities that brought Maddie joy.”
In early 2020, to the delight of her family, Maddie was taken off of therapy. This January, she was able to have her port removed. Thanks to the great work by the teams at both Advocate Children’s and Comer, Maddie can now spend her time being tied at the hip with her sister and going back to her favorite activity: gymnastics.
You can support kids like Maddie
Many of the programs at Advocate Children’s Hospital – such as Child Life, Creative Arts Therapies, and Education programs – are only possible because of the generous support of donors. Please consider making a gift today.