Alannah Gillis Photo: Shari Fleming
God doesn’t give me more than I can handle.
That’s what 7-year-old Alannah Gillis said when she found out she had Stage IV neuroblastoma. And that’s what she had printed on custom rubber wristbands. Wristbands that she went on to sell in an effort to raise money for the Star Studio at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. That act of kindness would prove to be the first of many for this amazing and generous young girl.
“I like to be nice,” Alannah said.
Through treatment, which has subsequently stripped Alannah’s head bald, prevented her from riding a bike because of low blood counts and kept her from enjoying first grade while she spends extended periods hospitalized, Alannah is thinking of others first.
“She is just beyond thoughtful. The word ‘thoughtful’ doesn’t even cover it,” said her mom, Angela Peterson.
A mother’s persistence
Alannah’s diagnosis didn’t come easily, or quickly.
At the end of the school year, she came home one day complaining about leg pain, Peterson said. Her eyes were ashen underneath. Instead of playing outdoors on the trampoline or riding her bike, she was inside using the family’s gaming system.
“It was like she never slept. She was always tired,” Peterson said. “This was not my child.”
Alannah dared The Dude from the Star Studio to bungee jump at the Minnesota State Fair. He accepted the challenge.
So began Peterson’s quest for answers. Alannah saw three different providers who had different diagnoses. None were cancer.
The first treated Alannah for a bladder infection. The second said she had anemia and recommended supplements and to return in six weeks to be re-tested.
Peterson wasn’t convinced. She took Alannah to a third provider and asked her – mom to mom – to figure out what was wrong. A series of blood tests indicated Alannah’s blood counts “were out of whack,” Peterson said.
They were told to go to Children’s – more than two hours away from their Wisconsin home – stat. After a series of tests, Peterson got the answer she needed but no mother wants for her daughter. She had cancer.
“Knowing is so much better than having questions,” Peterson said.
Alannah has retained her sense of humor through it all.
While Vicki Schaefers, Alannah’s nurse practitioner, talked with Peterson about the need for a blood transfusion, Alannah quipped, “You do know I am highly allergic to platelets!”
She has “intelligence that belies her age,” Schaefers said.
Acts of kindness
In the weeks since learning she has cancer, a community where many hadn’t heard the word neuroblastoma has rallied around Alannah, Peterson said.
On Sept. 22 – the day after Alannah’s seventh birthday – three casinos in her county raised approximately $98,000 to help pay for medical bills, a car for Peterson because she doesn’t have one, and a trip for Alannah’s family, Peterson said.
Approximately $20,000 will go to a county program for holiday gifts for children, Peterson said. Alannah insisted.
Alannah Gillis Photo: Shari Fleming
“Since her diagnosis, she has received more things than she could have imagined, but it has not changed her attitude toward others. She thinks of them first and foremost,” Schaefers said. “She is all about giving back, and this is only the beginning. She is an inspiration to all of us, and we will talk about her for years to come!”
A few days after the benefit, good news was in store for Alannah.
She returned to Children’s for a bone marrow biopsy and more chemo. During her stay, she got her biopsy results. Fifteen percent of Alannah’s cells were cancerous, down from 100 percent when she was diagnosed, Peterson said.
“The best news yet,” Peterson said.
Hours within getting the news, Alannah sat in her hospital bed awaiting more medicine. Her face was painted in shades of pink, purple, green and gold to resemble her favorite animal – a cat.
The warm, lovable, funny little girl got serious for a moment.
“I wish I knew why this happened,” she said.
No one knows, Peterson answered.
“It’s one thing when it’s happening to an adult who’s lived a long life; it’s another when it’s happening to a child who’s just beginning their life,” Peterson said.
That’s why they’ve agreed to participate in research that might help other kids and create better outcomes, Peterson said.
It’s yet another act of kindness.
“She has the biggest heart of any kid and adult I know,” Peterson said.