Giving Thanks

One family’s reason to be thankful this and every season.

by julie burton

Nearly eight years ago, Jill Riley watched as her third child spiked a fever.  Brittany, her daughter, was always robust, active and rarely sick.  Jill called her pediatrician and took her in to get checked.  Not seeing any symptoms of any common childhood illness, her doctor recommended a quick blood test.  Her physician took a look at the slide and immediately saw that Brittany’s body was overproducing white blood cells, a result that was reason for alarm. 

     Jill went home to talk with her husband, Kyle, and take care of her family while she waited for the next call from her doctor.  It didn’t take long and that evening, Brittany, her mother and father were asked to come back to the hospital.  This was Brittany’s first stay in the hospital, a visit that was to be repeated many times over the next few years.

     Dr. Paul Kelker, a pediatric oncologist at Billings Clinic, came to Brittany’s room at the hospital later that night.  He carefully, gently, clearly explained that Brittany had leukemia.  She needed to be transferred by LifeFlight to Denver’s Children’s Hospital immediately.  Jill and Kyle made plans….extensive plans for Brittany, travel and for their other children.

     At home, Jill and Kyle called family and friends.  Their church stepped up and joined the large network which became their vital support system.  Their children, Alex who was then just over 3, and Emily who was just 5, would stay in Billings with family.  Brittany and her dad would fly to Denver while Jill and her 3 month old baby, Taryn, would have to drive down.

     In Denver, the treatment started with Brittany and the intense education process started for Jill and Kyle.  During the next 10 days, Brittany learned about chemotherapy.  Her parents learned about the medical, social and emotional components of chemotherapy.  They all learned about protocol, treatments, and networking with medical staff and support groups.  They learned about research trials and found a study that was perfect for Brittany’s condition.

     The experience in Denver was intense and overwhelming.  Jill and Kyle turned to their faith for strength.  Jill shares that her faith “is the rock that anchors, even when everything else is storming around you.” 

     Brittany returned home and started her long journey that included 2 ½ years of treatment, multiple spinal taps, and 20 future stays in the hospital.  “I just remember too many shots and lots of cords when I was in the hospital but I always had my favorite meal:  Grilled cheese, Cheetos, and Sprite for breakfast, lunch and dinner!”

     Looking back at her early years, Brittany smiles and laughs about her memories.  “I remember that my Dad shaved his hair when I shaved mine.  I didn’t care about it much, but my dad did…..his head was kind of lumpy.”

     Continuing down memory lane, Britanny recalls, “My mom was good most of the time.  She had hats for me to wear and we sang “Fuzzy Wuzzy Was a Bear” but then sometimes I would get mad at her because she wouldn’t let me go outside to play.”

     Brittany explains that she does remember being sick and that her stomach didn’t feel right.  But the memories that she shares are not sad days in bed but rather kid memories of riding on the IV poles or her father zooming her down the hall in a wheelchair.

     During her years when she was receiving treatment, the Riley family was surrounded by people that reminded them of the goodness in life.  When Brittany was 3 ½, the Montana Highway Patrol delivered a two story playhouse that was donated through the Montana Hope Project.  Her aunts and uncles jumped into the celebration of the delivery of the house by helping to decorate the interior with furnishings and paint. Community businesses heard about the gift to Brittany and offered to donate paint, supplies and even some furnishings.  To this day, Brittany and her family enjoy this play home that includes vaulted ceilings and a wrap around porch.  The house serves as a reminder of the generosity of our community.

     The story of Brittany includes a chapter where she was very, very sick.  Jill remembers that challenges of moving on to the next chapter.  “It’s all about keeping balance in life:  my life, Brittany’s life, our family life.  We tried to keep her life normal, treating her exactly like the other kids in the family but there is still a transition.”

     Today, Brittany is five years out of treatment.  She is thankful!  She is celebrating every day.  She looks back at her early years and remembers what is so important in life.  “To have good families and friends around you is what really matters.  When something is hard in life, you have these people and you are coordinated with them and they are there to help you,” says Brittany.

     At the Riley house, the chaos of holiday celebration is laced with laughter, loud talk, energy that flits from room to room.  People are tucked in corners visiting.  Grandparents sit and watch their grandchildren bounce from game to game.  Aunts and Uncles set up tables, tend to food preparation and divvy up parenting obligations.

     These activities are all part of the tradition that lends to families sharing with each other.  This family knows the significance of celebration.  This family knows that importance of stopping to give thanks.  They have much for which to be thankful.

     Thanksgiving is a chance to reflect on all the things for which we are grateful. We have our friends.  We have our health. We have our faith. We have our family.  We are thankful. 

.      Julie Burton has raised both of her teenagers in Billings.  Her time is shared between attending high school sport events, spending time with her family, and working in Community Relations at Billings Clinic.