On June 24, expecting parents Aimee Bruner and Mishi Methven took their two-year-old daughter Stella Joy to the Hospital for Sick Children, thinking she had an ear infection.
It wasn’t long before they were forced to face the unthinkable — Stella was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumour. Within 24 hours, they learned it was terminal. Stella was given approximately three to six months to live.
Stella suffers from diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, an aggressive, rare form of cancer. The tumour is impossible to remove because it occurs in the brainstem, which controls vital body functions such as breathing.
When Methven learned of Stella’s condition, she fainted. They had to call 911 to transport her to the nearest hospital.
“It was just surreal,” Bruner said when describing the moment. “Like you’re watching a movie.”
At the time, Aimee was pregnant with their second child. In a twist of fate, the parents have learned that they expect their son, Sam, to arrive at roughly the same time they may lose Stella.
“At first I wondered, is this a positive or is this a negative?” Bruner said. “The times coincide to the day to the week, which is just completely ironic.”
Today the family is trying to make sure Stella’s last days are some of her best. As Methven says on her blog dedicated to their daughter, “If we can’t add more days to her life, let’s add more life to her days”.
“All the people and stuff that she loves, we’ve been giving her for three months,” Bruner said. “She’s just been in total heaven, clueless about what’s going on around her.”
For months, Stella was the embodiment of her middle name. Blissfully ignorant about her condition, she could be seen laughing and smiling as her parents struggled with the news that they were losing their only daughter.
But recently things have been different. Stella’s condition is declining daily; she has lost the ability to stand and walk and is slowly losing her sight and speech.
Stella’s illness has painfully revealed itself in other ways, too.
“The last week or two she’s not wanted to do the things that she loves to do,” Bruner said. “I’m sure in some way, she’s conscious that something’s going on.”
For Bruner and Methven, the most difficult part in dealing with Stella’s illness has been watching her bright, sunny demeanor slowly fade away.
“It’s hard to see her personality only in glimpses,” Bruner said. “It’s hard seeing her sleeping all the time, not being herself … It’s heart-wrenching.”
While she always had a feisty personality to match her fiery red hair, the spark that filled Stella with so much energy has flickered in recent weeks.
“She’s always been a kid on the go, and now she’ll stay in our arms and cuddle a lot,” Bruner said. “It’s bittersweet.”
Stella has been sleeping more and eating less, signs the parents were told to look out for. But even in her current state, she still manages to find the time to smile, Bruner said.
“We have been finding glimpses of joy and laughter in her days,” she said. “They’re just few and far between, which can be hard.”
If the situation wasn’t difficult enough as it is, the family is experiencing financial issues because both mothers have taken leave off work to care for Stella. They recently held a fundraiser to help ease the financial burden.
“It’s something we have to juggle and worry about on top of grieving and trying to prepare for our new baby,” Bruner said.
Now well past the three-month mark, the arrival of their new son is one of the only things getting Bruner and Methven through the days.
“Of course it will be hard to grieve and give love at the same time, but in the long run, we’re extremely grateful and happy for this to come to us,” Bruner said.
And while Sam may never get a chance to meet his older sister, he’ll have something to remember her by.
“Stella named him, so that’s nice,” Bruner remarks. “We can tell him later.”