In January, Willow Gill will turn 7.
There’s nothing really unusual about that. Birthdays, after all, are special but not necessarily remarkable events in a child’s life.
If a child’s life is allowed to proceed more or less normally, that is.
But in Willow’s case, ringing in a new year — or simply ringing a bell — takes on a miraculous, life-affirming level of significance.
Thanks to her courage and the work of Arkansas Children’s Hospital, Willow has completed her second cancer-free year after a more than two-year battle with leukemia. On Nov. 19, 2019, Willow, like patients in cancer hospitals around the country, rang a ceremonial bell marking the end of her treatment.
“She actually rang it on my birthday,” says Willow’s mother, Brittany Gill.
Willow’s journey was arduous, full of pain, fear and uncertainty. It will be remembered, of course, for its happy conclusion, but also for the efforts of the ACH staff, which provides personalized care and treatment for more than 370,000 patients, and their families, each year.
“My favorite thing is that they saved my life,” Willow says.
With the holiday season underway, ACH is again foregoing a live version of its major fundraiser, the Miracle Ball, in favor of a virtual event as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than a one-night gala, the Miracle Ball Matching Fund Drive — a shared event between the ACH Auxiliary and Arkansas Children’s Foundation — will feature an 11-day schedule that includes the fund drive, raffle and silent auction.
For 2021-2022, U.S. News & World Report ranked Arkansas Children’s Hospital nationally in the pediatric subspecialties Cardiology and Heart Surgery, Nephrology, Pulmonology and Urology.
ACH is one of only five hospitals in the nation that have achieved Magnet Status (identifying and systemizing nursing excellence), ACS Level 1 verification and a Beacon award from the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.
The virtual 2020 ball raised more than $885,000 for ACH. Overall, the auxiliary raised $1.15 million to support the David M. Clark Center for Safe & Healthy Children, renovation of outdoor spaces at ACH, Arkansas Children’s Research Institute and the Palliative Care, Good Mourning and Comfort Foods programs.
This year, local philanthropists Michael and Jacqueline Retzer, who had a son treated at ACH as an infant, are matching every Miracle Ball donation dollar-for-dollar, up to $250,000.
“We are truly so blessed in Little Rock to have this stellar facility, one that is solely dedicated to the health and well-being of the children in our community and beyond,” Jacqueline says. “Supporting it financially is one of the greatest causes we can embrace, as there is no greater mission.”
An artist, art teacher and flower shop owner, Brittany has also been using her time and talents to assist the ACH cause. In addition to teaching art classes, she operates the Blooming Bee, a business she began after Willow’s diagnosis and opened as a physical flower shop in Beebe a year ago.
Brittany — who lives in Ward with Willow, husband Jon and son Rowan, 8 — began selling flowers at farmer’s markets during Willow’s illness and donating the sales to ACH causes.
“I think it’s just been a total eye-opener,” she says. “As much as I would never wish that upon Willow again, it’s given me a purpose. … I want to pay it forward.”
Slowing the Pace
Willow’s long battle began when she developed neck trouble that was originally diagnosed as a bacterial infection and was treated with antibiotics. But the ailments returned and Willow was sent home with a peripherally inserted central catheter, or PICC line.
Her blood counts didn’t improve, and further investigation led to the crushing diagnosis: lymphoblastic leukemia, one of the most common of childhood cancers, which attacks the blood and bone marrow and affects white blood cells.
ACH called Jon with the news while he was driving to work.
“I just remember him calling, and he was bawling hysterically and couldn’t utter a word,” Brittany says.
Willow was admitted immediately, with hardly any time to pack.
The next two and a half years were an agonizing maze of hospital rooms, surgeries, treatments and medications overlayed with fear made worse by isolation.
Willow suffered from respiratory infections and had to undergo surgery for laryngospasms, which affect the vocal cords and make it hard to breathe or speak. The family had to spend a month isolating in their room at ACH, and Willow spent two birthdays at the hospital.
Out of all the leukemia treatments, side effects and related difficulties, Brittany says the worst was seeing the physical changes in Willow when she was initially placed on steroids.
“They just balloon and they just become a totally different child,” she says. “I think that’s the hardest part people don’t understand unless you’ve gone through it.”
But, Brittany says, Willow’s illness and the accompanying fear also provided a certain clarity. She came to view things, she says, like a photographer lining up a perfect shot and began to notice and savor certain small details, like the way Willow would simply hold her pencil.
“During cancer treatment there’s several times where you are scared to death, like you are not going to have more time,” Brittany says. “I think it makes you appreciate more and slow down the pace a bit.”
Canines & Quality Care
During the family’s struggle, a different kind of appreciation surfaced. Brittany had once had a cousin treated at Children’s as an infant and she knew of the hospital's work, but the level of attention and care still came as an overwhelming and welcome part of the experience.
“They have the friendliest doctors and nurses,” Brittany says. “I’ve never seen them have a bad day. If they do, they don’t show it.”
1 Arkansas Children’s is the only pediatric health care system in Arkansas dedicated solely to children’s care.
700,000 children in Arkansas
2 pediatric hospitals
1 pediatric research institute and USDA nutrition center
1 philanthropic foundation
372,508 patient visits system-wide (July 2020 - June 2021)
Art carts, book carts, volunteers who lend their time to play with the young patients and, especially, therapy dogs helped to brighten days and take some of the edge off the worry. By Brittany’s count the Gills had once owned seven dogs, including a beloved boxer, and have recently acquired a pit bull puppy and an older dog.
“When we found out the therapy dogs were going to be there we made sure to hustle down to the room,” says Brittany, who has done animal rescue volunteer work and helped raise funds for the Puppy Up Foundation that fights canine cancer.
While the Children’s staff and volunteers put in the extra mile with activities for the kids, the parents and family members certainly aren’t forgotten.
ACH makes a number of accommodations to help make the long treatments and hospital stays as uncomplicated and stress-free as possible.
Meal vouchers — or a meal cart if the family is isolated — gas cards, housekeeping, the provision of toiletries as well as the availability of lodging at the Ronald McDonald House, are among the many amenities ACH offers to those who are already too overwhelmed to consider the smaller details of daily life.
“They definitely make sure to come in and say, ‘We’re going to help you. Don’t worry about that. Because your plate’s already full,’” Brittany says.
Arkansas Children's Inc. is the only health care system in Arkansas dedicated to caring for the state’s more than 700,000 children. The private nonprofit includes two pediatric hospitals, a pediatric research institute and USDA nutrition center, a philanthropic foundation, a nursery alliance, statewide clinics and education and outreach programs.
ACH is a 336-bed facility in Little Rock operating the state’s only Level I pediatric trauma center, burn center, Level IV neonatal intensive care unit, pediatric intensive care unit, pediatric surgery program with Level 1 verification from the American College of Surgeons, magnetoencephalography (MEG) system for neurosurgical planning and research and the state's only nationally-recognized pediatric transport program.
And it would be remiss to overlook one, very important, additional feature.
“The play room there is really fun,” Willow says.
Ambassadors & Miracles
According to her mother, Willow is a sassy and social girl who serves as an ambassador at her school, dances competitively at Cabot Dance Academy and plays soccer in the spring.
In her love of art, Willow takes after her mother, and not only did she help her with her flower/fundraising business during her illness, she is also an Arkansas Children’s Ambassador, one of the group of patients selected each year to, with their families, share their stories, help raise funds and represent Arkansas Children’s at fundraising events around the state.
“Another thing I do appreciate, too, is the ambassador program because that gives us an opportunity to say to Children’s Hospital, ‘Thank you.’ That’s been a big part of our lives and I’m very grateful for it.”
Philanthropic and volunteer efforts have supported Arkansas Children's since it began as an orphanage in 1912, and today, events like the Miracle Ball loom large in its success.
“From the bottom of our hearts, we want to thank everyone for their support of such a worthy cause during this special season of giving,” Jacqueline says.
This year’s fund drive runs from Dec. 1-11. Events include the raffle of a white and gold necklace and diamond earrings, with a retail value of $125,000, from Jones & Son Diamond & Bridal Fine Jewelry and a silent auction whose 50 items include a Disney trip and Four Seasons dinner party package.
The raffle winner will be announced Dec. 13. The silent auction runs the duration of the fund drive.
Of all the perspective and life appreciation gained from Willow’s cancer fight, one of the most startling realizations for Brittany was learning how many people are touched by childhood cancer. It could be a neighbor down the street, a friend or it could be you, which, she says, only underscores how vital it is to support ACH.
“No one ever wants to hear that their child is sick or has to fight cancer. No one wants them to go against that battle,” Brittany says. “But if you ever hear that, you want people to be behind you. Children’s couldn’t run the way it does without support and fundraising and volunteers. I mean, they saved my child’s life and they save children’s lives every day.”
To Willow, that has a nice ring.
“It makes me happy they help people.”