The first six years of little Nicolle Zaslavsky’s life were a mix of awe and wonder for her young parents, who met in Calgary after immigrating 20 years apart from the same town of Lviv in western Ukraine.
“To us, a child is a gift, someone to pass all your love to, your life experiences, teach them to be a proper person,” said her mother Elona, with a slight Slavic accent.
“Nicolle was never like every other child. She was an old soul, with this amazing wisdom, with this inquisitive look in her eyes. She was mature beyond her years.”
But when Nicolle was six, a spring break vacation to Florida turned into the family’s worst nightmare when the slight headaches she’d been sporadically complaining of months earlier turned into severe head pain and vomiting. She was rushed to a Florida hospital.
CAT scans revealed the worst news possible as American doctors, with tears in their eyes, described a brain tumour the size of a grapefruit.
The six-year-old was airlifted to Miami Children’s Hospital for surgery. But after an unexpected stroke just prior to the operation, then seven hours of surgery and three blood transfusions, Nicolle remained in a vegetative state for weeks.
Upon returning to Calgary, doctors here put her through gruelling bouts of physio and speech therapy in an effort to bring her back to the little girl she once was. And while the cancer was believed to have been cleared, Nicolle still had to endure several rounds of radiation in hopes of preventing its return.
Doctors were so impressed with her resilience, and her positive attitude, they often asked her to stay for physiotherapy sessions that followed her own so she could mentor older, less resilient kids and set a good example.
“It is amazing what she had to go through, and how well she handled everything,” said her father Greg.
“She was always so positive. She never, ever complained about anything.”
Elona remembers her first words about three months after the Miami surgery.
She was fiddling with a feeding tube attached to her nose.
“I remember how much she didn’t like it, and when she was pulling at it I said to her, ‘Nicolle, what do you think you’re doing?’ And she turned to me and spoke. ‘I’m looking at you, mommy.’ ”
Elona’s eyes still well up with tears over the memory.
Nicolle was able to make a full recovery, returning to school and friends.
But over a year later, a routine scan showed the cancer had returned.
After a surgery to remove it, doctors suggested removal of the entire right hemisphere of her brain, which had already been seriously damaged by the initial tumour.
Soon after what seemed like a radical surgery, Nicolle miraculously found the strength to recover, settling back into school again.
Greg explains that she was able to function almost normally because the right hemisphere is responsible for emotion and visual perception while the left is responsible for larger functions like memory and co-ordination.
Still, Elona said, doctors warned them, “if this thing ever comes back again, it’ll come back in the central brain stem, and there may not be much we can do.”
Within six months, Nicolle started to lose her balance, falling at odd times at school. At home one night, Elona saw her pupils were sometimes not responding to light or movement. A scan confirmed the cancerous tumour had returned, growing rapidly in Nicolle’s brain stem.
“She deteriorated so quickly then,” Greg remembers, wiping tears. “It was really hard to watch.”
More than 200 people — friends, family, doctors and nurses all touched by her strength — attended Nicolle’s funeral in July 2010.
Life after her death was unbearable for her parents.
“Our life was empty, it was hollow,” Elona said. “We’d just try and run away on weekends, we couldn’t be in the house.”
Knowing that conceiving another baby would be difficult, they started researching adoption, discovering that, too, would be a long, arduous process.
Months later, in the midst of a desperate attempt to connect with Nicolle, missing her terribly, Greg and Elona visited a clairvoyant. The woman said she saw Nicolle, who told her parents if they wanted to have children, to go ahead, that she had a baby brother and sister waiting for them. The brother, she had said, would arrive first.
“I just kind of thought to myself, ‘yeah, right,’ ” Elona said.
Two months later, Elona was pregnant. Baby Nathan was born March 20 of this year, conceived naturally nine months earlier on the first anniversary of Nicolle’s death.
Elona and Greg sit in the quiet peace of their immaculate Woodbine living room, grateful for the joy their new boy has brought through what seems like an even bigger miracle than the birth of Nicolle.
Just over two weeks of age, tiny Nathan is the picture of perfect health, thriving, feeding well and snuggling with his mother.
This fall, the family will participate in the third annual Little Angel, Big Dreams silent auction in Nicolle’s honour. The event will raise funds for the Alberta Children’s Hospital and medical student scholarships through the Nicolle Sabine Zaslavsky Memorial Fund, already at $100,000.
For inquiries about how to give, or buy silent auction tickets, call Greg at 403-620-1635.
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