It took eight years for John Hornick and Heidi Tarshis to find an answer for their daughter's unexplainable health issues. As a baby, Mikayla suffered from moderate acid reflux and her growth rate was delayed for a child her age. "We had Mikayla tested for everything and specialists couldn't identify what was wrong with our daughter - they ended up saying it was failure to thrive," says Heidi. "We were left with no further answers."
By kindergarten, Mikayla joined a gymnastics team and little by little her skills advanced. "She has a passion for the sport, but by second grade she started falling off of the balance beam; you could tell that her motor skills were being affected by something," says Heidi. By that summer, Mikayla was having trouble riding her bike, experiencing behavioral issues, and had headaches coupled with vomiting.
Like many children, Mikayla looked forward to summer camp and said goodbye to her parents for what was supposed to be a fun week. Heidi ended up having to pick up Mikayla from camp early and saw that there was something wrong with her eye. "When I got to camp, my daughter's eye was completely turned outwards," says Heidi. Heidi knew right away that something serious was wrong with her daughter, and she rushed Mikayla to their local doctor. "As soon as we got to our doctor, he called the emergency room at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and we drove from our home in Furlong, Pennsylvania, directly to CHOP. That evening Mikayla was diagnosed with a brain tumor," says Heidi.
The very next day, Mikayla was scheduled to undergo surgery and doctors were able to successfully remove the entire tumor; however, two weeks later, an MRI indicated that she had two more tumors on her spinal cord. From July to October, John and Heidi stayed by their daughter's bedside as she received radiation. For a few short weeks in October, the Hornicks were able to pack their belongings and return home, knowing that it would not be long before they would return to the hospital. From November to February, Mikayla underwent chemotherapy and stem cell transplants to aide in her recovery.
"We lived at the hospital and utilized the Ronald McDonald Family Room in the Oncology Unit every single day for months," says Heidi. The Family Room in the Oncology Unit provides families like the Hornicks with a quiet retreat from the hospital setting, featuring a family-style dining table, a TV, comfortable seating, kitchen facilities, and a guest bathroom. There is also a laundry room equipped with a washer and dryer, a folding station, detergent, and laundry baskets. "My husband and I met so many other parents who were going through what we were going through and we're still friends with them to this day. The Ronald McDonald Family Room in the Oncology Unit was an invaluable resource and helped make our long days at the hospital a little more comfortable," says Heidi.
Mikayla, now nine years old, completed her treatment in February 2015, and this summer she experienced the joys of Ronald McDonald Camp - the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House's traditional overnight camp in the Pocono Mountains for children with cancer and their siblings. "When Mikayla underwent treatment, she lost her hair, and became very self-conscious. As a mother, it was painful to see that, but when she was at Camp, the salon that visits to do the children's hair styled her hair into a pink mohawk and Mikayla loved it. To this day, she proudly wears her mohawk hairdo," says Heidi. Camp helped Mikayla regain her confidence and spunk, and a week after she got home from Ronald McDonald Camp, she was cleared to resume karate, gymnastics, and other sports. "We returned to gymnastics, and she performed her balance beam routine without falling off. I cried tears of happiness," says Heidi.
In addition to benefiting from the Family Rooms, the family also stayed at the Chestnut Street House while Mikayla was part of the CHOP Feeding program this past September to October; they also regularly commute back and forth to CHOP for an array of follow up appointments such as MRIs, to ensure that Mikayla's health is on track. "We have a lot on our plates," says Heidi. "Staying at the Chestnut Street House makes things a little easier on my family. From meals, to the activities for my daughter, to the sense of community - it's a truly wonderful place." The Hornicks, along with the other 44 families that stay at the House each night, can gain peace of mind knowing that they don't have to worry about many of the everyday stressors - freeing mothers and fathers like Heidi and John to focus on what's truly important: the well-being of their child.
Now that Mikayla can return to her athletic hobbies, Heidi and John reported that this past Halloween, their daughter got on her bike for the first time since her treatment and rode off down their street. "My husband and I watched with sheer amazement," says Heidi. "This has been a very long journey, but we finally feel like we're getting our little girl back - each day she continues to inspire us by all that she's accomplished."