LA GRANGE PARK – The attitude of Becca Mueller, a 10-year-old battling leukemia since August 2010, was perhaps most striking in response to her parents’ comment that she had to spend Christmas in the hospital three years ago.
“But Santa, he came too,” Mueller said.
On Aug. 3, 2010, Mueller was diagnosed with two forms of leukemia: acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). ALL is the most common type of cancer in children, but AML is more common in adults.
“Usually, it’s just one [form],” said Barb Mueller, Becca’s mother. “But she...got two.”
Both forms involve abnormalities in the body’s production of white blood cells. After being diagnosed, Becca spent much of the first year of treatment at Hope Children’s Hospital in Oak Lawn, which proved difficult. She experienced side effects with almost every form of treatment, which included chemotherapy, radiation, bone marrow tests and spinal taps. The steroids she had to take caused cell and bone damage to her hips and shoulders, which is why she uses walking aids that fasten around her arm.
“I’m difficult,” Becca joked.
After spending so much time in the hospital, Becca now gets to stay home, where she shares a bedroom with her sister, Julia, 8. Until recently, the room held a “lot of icky memories,” Barb Mueller said, from times when Becca was sick.
The memories aren’t gone, but thanks to Kelly Knox, Becca and her sister have a new room where they can start making new ones.
Making space special
Knox is the Chicago area director of Special Spaces, which creates new bedrooms for kids with critical illnesses. On July 13, Knox and her team asked the Muellers to get out of their house during the day. By night, the two girls had a new room, highlighted by pink walls, purple peace signs, wood floors and, most importantly, a top-of-the-line bunk bed.
“It’s amazing,” said Becca. “It looks so cool now. Me and my sister always wanted bunk beds. It’s like so fun having a bunk bed. It’s so nice having a brand new fresh room.”
The Muellers are thankful for a new bedroom, but Knox was just as touched by the family.
“They’re constantly filled with laughter … It is constant,” she said. “That mother, Barb, is doing an amazing job raising those children with a half glass full mentality.”
The family has needed it. In January 2010, seven months before Becca was diagnosed, Barb’s mom, Mary Perry, was diagnosed with the same cancer. Becca and her compared their white blood cell counts and platelets after treatments. In May 2011, she passed.
Becca’s initial treatment targeted the AML, the more aggressive form, but it didn’t work. Doctors then began treating the ALL, and Becca finished that treatment in January. Now, she’s in remission and visits the hospital once a month for blood checks and every three months for a spinal tap.
“Since she’s been off the treatment, I feel like she’s getting stronger,” Barb Mueller said. “I think she’s been growing more. All that stuff’s out of her system.”
While in the hospital, Becca had to miss second grade, but she had a tutor at the hospital and didn’t miss a beat, Barb Mueller said. This year, she’ll be a fifth-grader at Forest Road School. She loves music and art class, and she’s in advanced math. Outside of school, Becca likes to sew (she has her own machine), dance with her sister and swim. She’s also learning to play the piano.
“Becca is definitely somebody special,” said Lisa Boland, the coordinator of child life at Hope Children’s Hospital where Becca receives treatment. “She’s just overcome so much throughout her treatment.”
Talking with Barb and Kent Mueller, it’s not difficult to notice where the attitude comes from. When asked if she gets it from her mom, Becca said: “She’s good with stuff. And everybody calls me a tough cookie.”