Running through the Mother Seton Garden playground at the Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Ascension Sacred Heart, you’d never know 6-year-old Elliot Rowell was once a patient here.
When he was only three, Elliot was diagnosed with retinoblastoma. After surgery to remove the tumor along with his eye, his family thought they were out of the woods. But his cancer returned, so Joe, Heather, Elliot and his brother John traveled to Miami, where he would undergo radiation for three months.
“It was very difficult being away from home. Every day was spent figuring out how to be there for Elliot, the logistics of his treatment and where we would stay,” says his father, Joe. “It was a blessing when we found out we could come back home to our local Children’s Hospital with a world-class oncology team.”
Once back in Pensacola, Elliot began chemotherapy. Immediately, he went from being a child with boundless energy to one bound to a hospital bed. Throwing up all day and night, Elliot lost one-third of his body weight and required a feeding tube to receive the nourishment he so desperately needed.
Then came Mark, a physical therapist on Elliot’s team.
“Watching your child deteriorate so quickly at the age of four, there’s no way to describe what that’s like,” says Elliot’s mom, Heather. “He was so weak. I remember Mark coming in and he was just like sunlight. He knew how to help him, but he also knew how to become a friend.”
The entire team became Elliot’s friends, from Dr. Schwartz to Christy, “The Pokey Nurse” – who received her nickname thanks to all the poking Elliot had to go through to get well.
Elliot didn’t like being left alone for a second. One time, when his mom stepped out for a drink, she saw the nurses gathered around the phone listening to a small voice and howling with laughter. It was Elliot, asking someone to come and sit with him.
Prior to their experience, the Rowell kids didn’t even know the word “cancer.” His parents explained it from a clinical standpoint, telling the boys it was something going wrong inside Elliot’s cells that could be fixed with special medicine.
“Dr. Schwartz could answer any question – no matter how bizarre,” Heather says. “He was a huge comfort to us when we returned home to start treatment.”
The family was overjoyed to be home and to have the support of their loved ones, as well as the entire community.
“The effort and the technology that’s gone into this place is amazing,” Joe says. “It’s a fantastic thing for families in the region that they don’t have to travel to receive the level of care that they want and that their children deserve.”
As a mother, Heather quickly noticed how kid-centered the new hospital is.
“There’s so much for kids to do here at the hospital, whether it’s the patient or their siblings or friends who come to visit,” she shares. “You can tell it was made for little hands and little feet.”
As for the staff, Joe says there was not a single person they came into contact with that wasn’t nurturing, caring, attentive and professional. “They made you feel like you were the only person they had to take care of.”
Many times, unexpected complications can arise during treatment.
“We didn’t know what to do when things fell apart, but the nurses knew their protocol,” Heather says. “For every problem there is a solution … there is always something they can do to help.”
The doctors and nurses did help, and Elliot is now a strong and (strong-willed) little boy.
“They became family to us. I remember leaving, looking around and going, ‘Y’all aren’t coming with us?’” Heather shares. “Having this hospital in our community means we can keep that relationship going.”
To the more than 12,000 people who donated to help create the new Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, Joe says:
“Thank you for making this place accessible – and for the vision you have for the children and families of this community.”
Heather, too, is grateful for what this hospital means to families in need.
“To be able to come here and see the love and the attention and the huge support there is for serving and caring for our children, it’s super encouraging,” she says. “I’m a teacher, and I know that children really are the future. This whole hospital is a testament to our community loving our children.”
Mom and Dad both have big dreams for Elliot, though Joe says he can’t dream anything bigger for his little boy than he can dream for himself.
“My dream for Elliot is that he wouldn’t think of himself as a victim or a cancer patient … that he would figure out what he’s great at and just run,” Heather says. “I can’t wait for the day that he’s known more for what he’s accomplished than what happened to him.”
Elliot has his own plan in mind. “I want to be what Mr. Mark was. He helps people get strong and he makes people laugh.”
There’s no doubt Elliot keeps people laughing. Every time his family drives down 9th Avenue in Pensacola, he shouts, “That’s my hospital!”
Yes, it is.