Pete and Jennifer Dickson went from planning their son Peter's 3rd birthday party to planning his cancer treatment in a matter of hours, after a host of seemingly minor symptoms led to a diagnosis of acute lymphocytic leukemia. The Dicksons discuss Peter's diagnosis and treatment at UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.
How did you learn about Peter's leukemia?
Jennifer: I was getting ready for his 3rd birthday party. He had little colds here and there, and his legs would ache and he had some bruising, but I assumed that was all part of being a 3-year-old. He had a bloody nose and small symptoms that kept coming on, little by little. So I took him to our pediatrician, to get medicine so we could continue with his birthday, and I was told that we needed to get blood tests. We went and got our blood tests, and immediately they told us that we needed to pack our bags and go to UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital because Peter had leukemia.
The pediatrician wouldn't tell me [right away], he wanted to wait until my husband was on his way home. I called Pete and said, "Peter has to go get blood tests. I'm scared, I need you to come home."
Pete: I'm a fireman, and I was actually on a wild land fire at the time. They pulled me off of the line, and I was able to go home and talk to the pediatrician.
Jennifer: Within a half hour, we had packed our bags and were on our way to UCSF. They did all kinds of blood tests and sat down with us and talked about what kind of leukemia he could have, the different types and the different treatment plans. Within 24 hours, we knew that Peter had acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Tell me about Peter's doctors.
Jennifer: They were very proactive in getting us involved. In fact, their goal was that, before we could leave the hospital, we would know how to administer every drug that Peter took — every chemo, every steroid. They gave us every possible phone number that we could imagine to call.
The nurses are amazing. You feel like they really, really care. They helped me make a friend there, whose child was going through the same thing. They help you make connections with other families, so you can help each other through these treatments.
How did you deal with the fear of the unknown?
Jennifer: The nurses always said, you are your child's advocate, so don't be afraid to speak up, don't be afraid to ask questions. Your child cannot speak, so you need to be his voice.
It was very scary. Even with the percentage of an 85 percent cure rate, or even 95 percent — you're always thinking, there's that 5 percent. But they never let you look at that. UCSF does so much testing and typing of the type of leukemia, what treatments are going to work for your child. They are super cautious, and they're not going to do anything that will harm your child or that they're not sure of.
Was it strange to be the one needing help, Pete?
Pete: It's a lot different when I'm running calls on adults than running calls on children. With my own son coming down with this life-threatening illness — we went through different stages of denial. Why us? What could have caused this? They still don't know what causes leukemia.
Jennifer: We used to sit there and say, "Why us? I've done everything good. I've never even given my child a cookie." Then we were sitting in our room, and there was a 6-month-old coming out with a bone marrow transplant, and his parents were our age or even younger. It dawned on me and Pete, why not us? It doesn't matter who you are. It just kind of happens, and with the grace of God and the right treatment, here he is.
How did you decide on UCSF?
Pete: I did a lot of research on all the hospitals once we got to UCSF Benioff, searching for the best possible treatment options. There are many hospitals but I did find that UCSF Benioff is one of the top in the nation — in the world, I think — for his type of cancer.
Jennifer: You just know when it's the right place. You connect with the nurses and the doctors. They made you feel like you were the only patient and you weren't. There are two floors full of children with cancers.
In fact, I remember saying "I don't think I'm ready to go home" after almost four weeks there. I felt like they were taking such good care of Peter that going home was the scariest thing. I probably would have lived there for the full three-and-a-half years [of treatment] if I could have. But even when we went home, the nurses and the doctors were on call. They knew my phone number and when I called they'd answer and say, "Hi, Jennifer!"
I'll never forget Dr. Hermiston, who is one of Peter's main doctors. When we were first diagnosed and they had just gotten all the results on his genetic typing, she came in with tears in her eyes, just full of joy because Peter had every kind of genetic type that he needed for the chemotherapy to work. I adore her for that.
Interviewed April 2012