MOUNT HERMON — “This has been the worst six months of our lives,” Leigh Ann Stevenson said as she watched her 8- and 3-year-old daughters play.
In July, she lost her job as a nurse.
In August, she wrecked her car.
At the end of September, doctors at Duke University Hospital diagnosed Brynlee, the 3-year-old daughter, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer.
The little girl started chemotherapy the next day, even though she had no insurance.
This is where the fundraising comes in to cover the mounting costs of medical treatments.
“We have a really hard time knowing that we need help, and accepting it is hard for us,” Leigh Ann said.
Her church will be hosting a fundraiser in January to help cover the costs from these treatments and make up for Leigh Ann being unable to work.
Brynlee is a thin girl who always wants to know what you’re doing, and have her own little piece of the action.
During the interview for this story at the family home, with the Register & Bee’s photographer in the room, she learned how to take pictures on a 3-pound camera that she could barely lift.
The weight didn’t stop her from asking everyone in the room to “take a pitcha.” While the photos were mostly blurry, she brought a smile to everyone in the room as she snapped away.
As for the cancer diagnosis, the mother had started to realize something was wrong when Brynlee’s hemoglobin was low at a well child checkup.
Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body and returns carbon dioxide to the lungs to be breathed out.
When she started spiking a nightly fever that had no apparent cause, she had to go back to the doctor.
Pediatricians checked her hemoglobin levels again a few weeks later.
“It was really low, and they thought their machine had malfunctioned,” Leigh Ann said. “I knew that it had not malfunctioned.”
A pediatrician told them to get to a pediatric emergency pediatric room — immediately.
“I’ve never felt like that, and I hope I never feel like that again,” Leigh Ann said, her voice thick with emotion. “It was so hard to sit there and hold my baby, not knowing what they were going to tell us in a couple of days.”
Brynlee now does a chemotherapy treatment every 10 days and is expected to be in treatment for the next two and a half years.
“It really sucks because my birthday is Sept. 4, and she was diagnosed in September,” older sister Kyleigh said. “It was like the worst birthday gift ever.”
A few weeks later, Brynlee’s hair started falling out in chunks.
“I made her a deal one day,” father Stevie Stevenson said. “I told her, ‘When we get home, I’ll let you cut Daddy’s hair if you let Daddy cut yours.’ She didn’t forget it either. So I gave her the clippers and let her go to town on mine. ”
Within the first month, she was in the ER every night for a week with a fever. But when Leigh Ann lost her job, they lost the only form of insurance for the kids.
The high cost of the procedures led to them being approved for Medicaid for Brynlee’s treatments. The family’s out-of-pocket costs for the coverage have still been astronomical.
Stevie is leaving his job as a corporal and K-9 handler with the Pittsylvania County Sheriff’s Office to go to Danville’s Police Department specifically because the health insurance is more affordable.
“I’ve been out there for over 11 years,” Stevie said. “I came out here for better opportunities, which is good, until you have to do something with the family plan.”
The support the family has received from all over the country has been “awesome,” the father noted.
“With my line of work, no matter how crazy this world gets and people killing people and stuff like that — when something happens to a child, it’s like everyone comes together,” Stevie said.
Brynlee doesn’t let her diagnosis get her down, though.
“She’s the sweetest, meanest baby there ever is,” Leigh Ann said with a laugh. “She’s constantly into stuff, so strong-willed. But just out of the blue, she’ll come up to you and tell you how much she loves you.”
During the interview for this story, the little girl insisted on performing a popular dance called the Whip and Nae Nae for the room, knocking her knees together and singing “break your legs, break your legs.”
She sang along with the song by rapper Silentó, “Ooh watch me, watch me, ooh!” while she danced.
She also could not be stopped from showing off her collection of hats.
One hat, made to look like Princess Anna’s hair from the popular Disney animated feature “Frozen,” was a gift from the Wildwood Correctional Center, a women’s prison in Alaska. Another she called her “u-in-corn hat,” which was knitted by an aunt’s knitting club.
They even received a prayer shawl from an U.S. Army mother’s group in California.
“We appreciate everything that everyone has done, and will do for us,” Leigh Ann said. “In a time like this, you find out who your friends are, you find out who cares, and you find out there’s still good out there.”
The Jan. 13 fundraiser, hosted by Swansonville Pentecostal Holiness Church, will include a barbecue, meal, a silent auction, a bake sale and children’s games.
“She’s really a strong child,” Leigh Ann said. “She shows me what it’s like to live.”