As the only program of its kind in Canada, Hospital at Home makes life-saving cancer treatment more comfortable for kids.
When their three-year-old son, Chance, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, it came as a huge shock to his parents, Christina and Rick. Thinking their little boy had simply come down with a bad flu bug, they couldn’t believe it when Chance was immediately admitted to the Alberta Children’s Hospital and given a blood transfusion. As specialists began describing the course of treatment that was ahead of Chance, they found it daunting to know that it would span more than three years. Some parts of the treatment would require the family to make as many as four trips to the hospital each week.
Christina was just beginning to digest what had quickly become a new and stressful reality when she learned about Hospital at Home. Thanks to community support, this program meant some of Chance’s medications could be administered in the comfort of their own home.
Hospital at Home completely transformed things for Chance. Instead of having to travel from his home in Cochrane to the hospital multiple times each week, Chance can sit on his own couch while receiving his chemotherapy. He watches a movie in his living room, plays on his iPad or even eats his lunch during appointments. As Christina learned on one occasion when Chance was feeling under the weather, the whole process is so non-disruptive, the nurse can even give him chemo while he was sleeping!
Hospital at Home has significantly decreased Chance’s stress and anxiety, says Christina. It saves their family many trips to the hospital, which Christina is particularly grateful for when the weather is bad and the highway is in rough shape. It has provided more flexibility for the family in terms of scheduling and it also means less life disruption for Chance’s sister, Trinity.
“Parents consistently tell us that this program has made a big difference for their family,” says Jennifer Crysdale, Patient Care Manager for the Hematology, Oncology and Transplant Program. “It can be very stressful to manage clinic appointments and keep routines as normal as possible at home, especially if there are siblings involved. This service helps to lift some of that burden.”
Beyond that, helping kids in their homes frees up space to care for those children who absolutely must be in hospital. “Last year, about 80 kids were able to receive a portion of their treatment at home which means we were able to accommodate patients more readily in the clinic or on the unit.”
Knowing that Chance has a long road ahead of him in terms of treatment, his family is especially grateful for the amazing services provided by Hospital at Home. They have developed such strong connections with his nurses that whenever they come for appointments, it just feels like hosting family, says Christina. “It’s made a very difficult time in our family so much easier to bear and we are incredibly thankful.”
Sorana Morrissy, Ph.D. is one of many recent recruits who was attracted to the innovative program of research happening at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI).
Like mechanics need cars to work on to perfect their skills, cancer researchers require biological samples in order to gather data and test their hypotheses. With a world-renowned tumour bank of more than 20 types of cancer, Calgary was the ideal place for Sorana Morrissy to relocate her lab and continue her research into the molecular changes that take place in tumour cells - changes which make them resistant to current cancer therapies.
“While the prospect of working in a brand new lab environment was compelling, I was especially drawn to the collaborative nature of the work that was being done at the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute,” says Dr. Morrissy, who came to Calgary after 6 years at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. “The multidisciplinary approach is invaluable in our quest to find new answers for kids fighting cancer.”
Working with other veteran researchers who have an interest in brain tumours and the immune system, Dr. Morrissy is sequencing medulloblastoma tumour samples to gather data from which to explore why some cells evade current chemotherapies. Using computational science, Dr. Morrissy and her research team apply complex mathematical analysis on the genetic code extracted from the samples. With this information, she can then make predictions to test in the lab. “The tumour bank here in Calgary is exceptionally rich with large samples. It allows us to examine cells from different parts of the tumour and see how the tumour grows and adapts over time.”
Medulloblastoma is a common childhood brain tumour, but rare in its occurrence. “In Calgary, there may be 3-4 cases a year, but in every case, treatment causes heartbreaking damage to these young developing brains. It’s important for us to find better ways to help these kids and their families.”
“It’s exciting to be adding experts like Dr. Morrissy to our exceptional team of researchers in the Childhood Cancer Research Program,” says Dr. Jennifer Chan, Kids Cancer Care Chair in Pediatric Oncology at ACHRI. “Her findings are already revealing interesting new approaches to tackling this very difficult diagnosis.”
“We know that metastases of medulloblastoma are entirely devastating,” says Dr. Morrissy. “It’s important to understand how the cancer cells spread from the primary tumour to distant sites on the brain surface - our research indicates that they cross the blood-brain barrier and travel in the bloodstream throughout the body, homing back to the brain where they grow as deadly metastases. This tells us that perhaps we can monitor the risk of the cancer recurring by doing simple blood tests. It’s a hypothesis at this point, but it gives us a place to start."
The new Childhood Cancer Research Lab at the University of Calgary Foothills Campus has reinforced the culture of collaboration that had been building within the team. The open concept and shared workspaces encourage easy interaction. “Seasoned researchers will tell you the simple conversations that happen in the lunch room or hallway are where some of the best ideas are born,” Dr. Chan says. “We wanted to create a space that would make those conversations a part of our everyday experience. Since the lab opened in December 2017, we are already seeing more connections being made between labs. It’s very gratifying and our hope is that it will ultimately result in some promising findings for the kids and families we are working so hard to help.”