Autumn’s fight: Green Bay kindergartener battles leukemia
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – While many gathered with family and friends this Thanksgiving – stuffing themselves with turkey, catching up with those they haven’t seen in quite some time and enjoying the time off – Andy and Mallory Gauerke spent the day at St. Vincent Hospital with their youngest daughter, Autumn, receiving news no parent ever wants to hear.
At just 5 years old, Autumn was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia.
“She had a cold in late October, and seemed to be over it, but then she got another one,” Andy Gauerke said. “Nothing too unusual, but after a couple more weeks, she started feeling increasingly tired and even nauseous, and eventually didn’t want to eat. We took her to see doctors throughout this time, but she was never quite bad enough to cause them to order additional tests – kids get this way sometimes.”
But instead of getting better, Autumn’s nausea and fatigue continued to get worse.
“We took her in again on Thanksgiving,” Mallory Gauerke said. “After looking at her paleness, stomach pain and fatigue, the doctor advised us to take her to the emergency room at St Vincent. After testing her blood, they came in and took more, telling us they wanted to confirm their result – not a good sign.”
Soon, the pediatric hematology and oncology doctor came into the room.
“He told us he was concerned that she may have leukemia due to the abnormal cells they found, and the fact that her blood levels were dangerously low,” Andy Gauerke said. “After multiple blood transfusions, they were able to get a bone marrow biopsy and confirm that Autumn has a rare form of leukemia that would require an aggressive treatment protocol.”
Mixed phenotype acute leukemia
Doctors said Autumn had mixed phenotype acute leukemia.
The term mixed phenotype means both types – acute myeloid leukemia and acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which attack blood-forming cells in the bone marrow.
Mallory Gauerke said treatment began almost immediately.
A port was installed in Autumn’s upper chest, and an aggressive chemotherapy regimen started.
“All the chemotherapy will have negative side effects, like low energy and probably hair loss,” she said. “(There is) potential for worse side effects. The first six-seven months will be the most intense as she has to go in for chemo treatments at least once per week and sometimes up to four times per week.”
Andy Gauerke said the port helps streamline the chemo process.
“(The port) is so they don’t need to give her an IV each time, but it will still mean a small needle poke each time we go in,” he said. “She will also need quite a few spinal injections to ensure she doesn’t get any leukemia cells in her spinal fluid.”
He said this is just the first round of treatment.
“Once this first period is over, she will still need to go in once or twice every 12 weeks for another one-and-a-half to two years to ensure the cancer doesn’t come back,” he said.
Mallory Gauerke said if the cancer doesn’t respond to the treatment or comes back, it will mean additional steps.
Autumn is currently receiving treatment at St. Vincent Hospital in consultation with Children’s Wisconsin Hospital.
Mallory Gauerke said if Autumn does not respond to the treatments as hoped, the next step is to go to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
She said the uncertainty of what lies ahead is gut-wrenching.
“We are worried about the side effects of the chemotherapy, worried that it won’t stop the cancer,” she said,” “and seeing Autumn be forced to deal with all of it. After about 12 hours in the hospital the first day, she said ‘Mommy, can we go home now?’ (It’s) heartbreaking to hear, knowing she had barely begun, and has many scary things ahead, including the bone marrow biopsy, spinal fluid test and port installation.”
Compromised immune system
Because of the high amount of chemotherapy Autumn is receiving, Andy Gauerke said her immune system is severely compromised.
“We have to be careful to keep her from getting any sickness,” he said.
A difficult task in normal times, magnified even more in the midst of a global pandemic.
“In order to keep her healthy, we have pulled her out of school,” Mallory Gauerke said. “We also chose to homeschool her older sister, Brooklyn, so she isn’t picking up any germs at school.”
Andy Gauerke, a grade 7-11 humanities teacher at Providence Academy in Green Bay, has taken a leave of absence to homeschool Autumn and Brooklyn.
“Her mom will also be working from home to further quarantine and be available for doctor appointments,” he said.
The Gauerkes said they know that because of the aggressive chemotherapy Autumn will need to fight the cancer, many side effects will follow, some that might even put her back in the hospital.
“One positive is she will be spending more time with us,” Mallory Gauerke said. “We are family-oriented. It’s the most important thing. We will have to work hard to encourage her through this time, to spend lots of quality time together to keep her (and all of our) spirits up, so we can get through this. We are also concerned about how her older sister will deal with all of this, especially given the amount of time and energy we will have to give Autumn.”
The Gauerkes said the support they have received has been overwhelming.
“We’ve received so much love/support/encouragement from our church and school and family – it has been such a blessing,” Mallory Gauerke said. “It means so much that there are so many people praying for her recovery. We have also been so thankful for all of the amazing staff at St. Vincent Children’s Hospital. All of the doctors, nurses, child life specialists and the dedicated social worker have been so supportive and helpful through this journey and truly care about our welfare and ensuring we have what we need to get through this.”
A GoFundMe page was created on behalf of the Gauerkes to help raise money for Autumn’s medical expenses, which are adding up quickly.
The page can be found at gofundme.com/f/autumns-journey-to-recovery
The Gauerkes said despite everything, Autumn has remained their bright, happy and perceptive little girl.
“She has been very brave,” Andy Gauerke said. “She has had to deal with many needles and tubes, and blood, and is doing amazing for such a young girl. While she does not like what is happening to her, she seems to understand that it is necessary in order to get better.”
Mallory Gauerke said underneath all the recurring appointments, heightened safety protocols and uprooted schedules is a little girl in the fight of her life who misses school, playing with her friends and being able to go shopping.
She said Autumn knows she has cancer, but doesn’t know if she fully understands what lies ahead.
“I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never had it before,” Autumn said. “I have yucky stuff in my blood that is making me sick, and they have to get rid of it. The hospital wasn’t fun. It was scary and some things hurt. (I’m sad) that I have to miss school and can’t see my friends. That I can’t go shopping or to stores, or on vacation.”