x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

A little miracle: UAE doctors help British child beat leukaemia

Breah D'Arcy was almost 3 when she was diagnosed with leukaemia - and her parents decided to stay in the UAE for all of her treatment.

Five year-old Breah D'Arcy and her mother Elaine. Breah has successfully battled cancer after she was diagnosed with leukaemia in late 2010. Delores Johnson / The National
Five year-old Breah D'Arcy and her mother Elaine. Breah has successfully battled cancer after she was diagnosed with leukaemia in late 2010. Delores Johnson / The National

Elaine D'Arcy scrolls through photographs of her youngest daughter, Breah, on her iPad. "She's got blonde curly locks now," she says, smiling at an image of the pretty 5-year-old girl on the screen.

This little girl's hair is significant because, for reasons that are every parent's nightmare, she used to have none. For Breah, who moved to Abu Dhabi when she was 8 months old with her parents and two older sisters, lost her hair after being diagnosed with leukaemia on October 21, 2010 at 4pm.

The date and time of hearing the words "I'm sorry to tell you, but your daughter's got leukaemia," are ingrained in Elaine's mind.

Almost two-and-a-half years later, Breah is fighting fit. She has undergone eight cycles of chemotherapy, endured endless injections, blood transfusions, heart scans, blood tests, lumbar punctures and even had chemotherapy injected into her spine.

But what makes her journey from near death to recovery is that all of her treatment took place in the UAE.

Unlike many expatriates, who return to their home country to treat chronic conditions, Briton Elaine, 41, decided to keep Breah in Abu Dhabi.

"We were in a quandary," she admits. "I asked a nurse if it was her child, would she treat her here and she said: 'You've got to make that decision,' but after speaking to the consultants, they gave me faith."

In January this year, Breah's treatment was complete was complete and, this week, an internal line inserted under her skin near her heart two years ago, that fed chemotherapy and other medication directly into her system, was finally removed. While she will need monthly check-ups for the next year and regular check-ups after that, the outlook is much brighter. But it has been far from easy for Breah, her parents and her siblings, Freya, 8, and Beth, 18.

Their journey began in 2010 when, during a trip to the UK, Breah complained of feeling unwell. She looked pale with dark circles under her eyes but because she was active and eating well, Elaine did not take her to the doctor.

Then, one day she received a call from her daughter's nursery. Breah had fallen over in the playground and could not get up.

Elaine assumed she was bruised but when Breah began walking with a pronounced limp and complained when she ate, alarm bells began to ring.

A paediatrician examined her, finding swollen lymph nodes in her groin and neck. Blood tests were taken and four hours after the initial visit to the doctor, the call came through.

With little time to think, Elaine rushed Breah to hospital, where her daughter was admitted for three weeks of intensive treatment. "She was really ill and they said that in two months she wouldn't have been with us. That doctor who diagnosed her is God in my eyes," says Elaine.

A line was inserted under her skin to allow chemotherapy to be pumped directly into her system and Breah, then 10 days away from her third birthday, endured endless tests, examinations and scans.

While Elaine stayed with her daughter during the day, her husband Simon, 44, a commercial manager for a construction company, stayed overnight.

Relations flew out from the UK to help, friends rallied round and the family struggled on as best they could. "I was like a robot," recalls Elaine, who worked as an intensive care nurse in the UK before the family transferred to the UAE.

Within three weeks, Breah was home, and within four she was in remission. While that indicated no cancer cells were evident in her body, she had a long journey to go to complete the treatment.

She needed eight rounds of chemotherapy, with each round lasting 84 days and involving different drugs.

Some were more toxic than others, but no matter what the treatment, Breah got on with it, not even batting an eyelid when she lost her hair six months into the programme.

"She did get stared at by children and some adults. Her sister, Freya, would go up to them and shout: 'Stop staring at my sister' but Breah never cared; I think it was her age."

Other side effects of the drugs will not be known for some time. There could be organ damage or fertility issues later in life but for now monthly checkups have not highlighted any issues.

However, unlike other children, any type of fever is considered serious and guaranteed a hospital stay, with Breah constantly taking antibiotics to ward off infection.

"But she's not one to complain," says Elaine.

"We've had a couple of scares. When leukaemia patients are ill with something like the flu, the bone marrow can produce cells that look like the leukaemia cells. So the doctors wanted to test her bloods for relapse but the next day everything was OK.

"In the beginning, we could be in for a week, out for a day, and then back in for a week. We never planned anything or travelled from the UAE. We only recently started to book trips because we'd get to the day before and cancel."

The family couldn't leave the UAE for more than a year, flying home for the first time 14 months after the initial diagnosis.

Sadly, trips home often saw Breah admitted to Birmingham Children's Hospital near the family home after getting an infection.

Incredibly, despite all this, the youngster has one of the best attendance records in her school class.

But for now the family are taking life one day at a time. Breah has started swimming lessons, enjoys tap and ballet and wants to learn to ride a horse. A trip to Walt Disney World, Florida, has been planned for the summer, with a breakfast with Rapunzel booked for Breah.

It will be an end of treatment present not only for Breah but for the whole family, who have all had their lives disrupted.

"The eldest one has just got on with it though she has probably been a bit neglected," says Elaine. "Freya has never been treated any differently - we've just tried to keep things normal for her. Initially when Breah was getting lots of presents she was a little jealous and overwhelmed but they are very close and she understands."

For Elaine herself, it was a matter of getting on with it too. "I'm a strong person," she says. "It was hard because there was nobody close who had gone through the same so I had to deal with it myself. There was nobody here that I could talk to and in a way I'm glad there wasn't; I wouldn't wish that on anybody."

She credits a UK-based Facebook support group for being her lifeline. "If I had a problem, I could ask: 'Did this happen?' You'd get so many replies saying: 'Don't worry, that happened to me' or 'It's normal.'"

One thing is for sure - Elaine feels treating her daughter in the UAE was the right decision.

"This is her home; she was 8 months old when we came out here and she didn't know anything different. I don't know what the future holds for her. But she's here and that's all that matters.

"Whatever comes to us we'll face and she's not given in once. She's been brilliant."

Alice Haine is a senior features writer for The National.