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HOSPITAL STAFF HELPS CHASE NIGHTMARE

It was a nightmarish Christmas.

Days before Christmas 1999, little Stacie Bliss, who had just turned 3, was diagnosed with leukemia.

Part of the family's shock was due to the fact that Stacie, the second youngest of seven Bliss children, had always been "very happy, bouncy, outgoing," recalled her mother, Patty of Arcade. But in hindsight, she admits that her daughter just hadn't been herself for some time.

One Sunday afternoon, the adorable child fell and hurt her knee. What should have been a bump or a bruise resulted in swollen nodes -- the first signs of cancer and the long treatment road ahead. But at the time, Bliss remembers being told, "It's probably nothing."

After Stacie fell, "she was only 90 percent herself," her mother remembers, so she saw the pediatrician. Keeping an eye on the toddler, Bliss wondered if her daughter was feeling lonely since her older sister had started school that fall. At Halloween, Stacie begged to be carried during a parade her big sister was in.

"She said her legs hurt. I thought maybe she was reacting to our baby getting attention or being left out with her sister," Bliss remembers.

Within days after that doctor's appointment, the Bliss family had made the first of countless visits to Kaleida Health's Children's Hospital, where Stacie continues to be treated through the oncology/hematology outpatient clinic. After her initial blood work revealed an abnormality, physicians told the Blisses there was a one in 2,000 chance that the problem was something "other than a virus."

"We won the lottery," recalled Bliss with grim irony.

A bone-marrow check the next day confirmed the leukemia diagnosis.

Much of Stacie's care has been provided on an outpatient basis, which has helped her recovery, her mother says.

"They set up home-care nurses for her," she said.

Initially, Stacie spent 10 days at Children's, arriving home early on Christmas Eve morning. For the first month after her diagnosis, she visited the clinic a few times a week for chemotherapy.

After that, she underwent a six-month period of three-day hospital stays every three weeks. Then, she was able to begin maintenance therapy, which involves a shot of methotrexate every week and a blood test every other week.

Now she visits Children's once a month, with intermittent care provided by her Springville pediatrician.

Happily, Stacie suffered almost none of the complications that typically go with chemo.

"She's the little girl racing down the hall with her IV pole," her mother said.

Also Stacie has never had an upset stomach or a mouth sore, and she has kept her long, golden hair.

"They call her the princess; she plans on growing up to be a beautiful princess," her mother said. And she can make those plans, as the outlook is good for a sparkling adulthood.

"Just 15 years ago, her diagnosis would have been a death sentence," Bliss said. Leukemia accounts for almost a third of all childhood cancer cases, in babies through early teens, according to a new report by the American Cancer Society. Since 1973, death rates from all child cancers have dropped by half.

While the Bliss family was warned to expect a loss of appetite, Stacie devoured pizza as an IV tube shot methotrexate into her bloodstream.

"The nurses had a blast with her," her mother said, adding that Children's Hospital "has made a mark on our heart."

Still "bouncy," Stacie started preschool last fall as scheduled. Today, she testifies that she's feeling just fine. Bliss reports that, "emotionally, my daughter has grown up an awful lot."

The Bliss family credits Stacie's doctors, nurses and the entire staff at Children's for helping them all to somehow grow through this ongoing challenge.

"They've been there for us," the hopeful mother said. "When we go to the hospital, it's not hard. It's always been a wonderful place to her to be."

Dena Sterns, a specialist with the hospital's child life department, which provides emotional support to children and families, explains that uncanny adjustment:

"When kids know what to expect, they develop trust."

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