By Julie Krienke
WAVERLY, MN When looking at 4-year-old Kathleen Riehm, most people see a typical child with a passion to sing, dance, and play dress-up.
Yet, for Kathleen and her mother, Brittany Riehm, life is not always what it seems on the surface.
“It is the instinct of a mother to take away a child’s pain,” Brittany said. “It is undoubtedly one of the hardest things to know your child has cancer, and you can’t take it away.”
Seven months ago, doctors at Mayo Clinic in Rochester found a rare tumor in the lining of Kathleen’s blood vessels. Medically referred to as Kapisform Hemangioendothelioma, the condition has caused what look like bruises on Kathleen’s arm that can be extremely painful.
“Not being able to take her place is hands-down the hardest thing for me,” said Brittany, who is originally from Annandale. “To watch her fear at the doctors, just wanting to protect her, but knowing we need to try everything if we want to beat this thing.”
For Brittany and Kathleen, the struggle began long before the diagnosis actually took place. In fact, friends and family viewed the diagnosis as a renewal of hope that Kathleen’s condition would finally receive the attention it needed.
According to Brittany, it all started when Kathleen was 5 months old and what looked like a small bruise became visible on her arm. When it continued to spread, Brittany sought medical care.
“I’ve been taking her to the doctor for years,” Brittany said. “I think she’s had it her whole life, but it’s been visible since she was 5 months old. Many doctors didn’t believe that it was really painful for her.”
Kathleen’s condition was misdiagnosed and mistreated for three years. According to Brittany, most doctors claimed it was nothing.
“I went to several different doctors, and I finally met one doctor who claimed it was a skin condition,” Brittany said. “He diagnosed it and treated it for about a year and a half.”
Yet, the laser treatment that this doctor used on Kathleen’s arm only made the condition worse. According to Brittany, it got to the point where Kathleen couldn’t even use her arm because it was so painful.
“She would wake up in the middle of the night screaming because he wouldn’t give us pain medication,” Brittany said.
A blessing in disguise
It was seven months ago when Brittany and Kathleen received news that was long overdue. Kathleen was finally able to get a visit at the Mayo Clinic of Rochester to get the care she needed.
“They did an MRI and MRA, and a biopsy, that no one had ever done before,” Brittany said. “It was from the biopsy that they knew, and when we went to the U of M, they confirmed the diagnosis.”
“At the Mayo Clinic, they were shocked that no one had done a biopsy,” added Natalie Caouette, family friend and former daycare provider for Kathleen.
Doctors at Mayo Clinic found a rare tumor on the lining of Kathleen’s blood vessels in January.
“When she was first diagnosed with it, the doctors were only able to give me a small amount of information,” Brittany said. “It’s pretty rare, but hopefully curable.”
Once at the University of Minnesota Hospital, Kathleen had a port implanted in her chest prior to beginning chemotherapy treatment to make it easier for her to get the medicine she needed.
Doctors at the U of M recognized that the condition caused Kathleen a great amount of pain, as she previously would not even use her arm.
“We finally got her on some good pain medication,” Brittany said. “She’s been doing chemotherapy each week on Thursdays for six months.”
For Kathleen, chemotherapy is necessary since the tumor is on the lining of her blood vessels and cannot be removed.
Kathleen receives the drug vincristine each week at chemotherapy. According to Brittany, this is a slow-acting medicine, so treatment must continue before the drug’s effect can be seen.
“We are hoping it will eventually go away,” Brittany said. “The news was really upsetting, but it gave us hope that someone took it seriously and gave treatment.”
According to Brittany, when individuals have a condition similar to this for an extensive period of time, their white blood cell count is typically affected. Yet, Kathleen’s white blood cell count has stayed relatively normal, which Brittany views as a miracle.
Doctors at the U of M have done a second MRI after the first six months of chemotherapy, which showed minor improvement. According to Brittany, this means that the tumor is shrinking.
“I’m pretty sure we found this when Kathleen was, like, 10 months old,” said Caouette. “I’m just happy that they have finally found what the problem was, and we can treat it.”
Despite improvements that have been seen, Kathleen’s road to recovery has posed a substantial amount of struggle for both herself and her mother.
“It’s been really emotional for her, going to the doctor all the time,” Brittany said. “It’s hard for her, but we have great doctors.”
In addition, the vincristine that Kathleen receives at chemotherapy causes minor nerve damage, which is monitored by her doctors.
“The chemo medicine, itself, isn’t too bad, it’s more the emotional stuff and the nerves,” Brittany said. “She has been affected by cancer her whole life, and the tumor has just made it a really painful spot.”
The struggle for Brittany and Kathleen can also be seen financially, as medical bills are piling up with each visit to the doctor.
“That gets tough because it’s already hard to pay our bills, and then we have the medical bills on top of it,” Brittany said. “I still have to go to work and pay the bills and take care of her.”
For Brittany, the hardest part is going to work when Kathleen needs someone to take care of her due to the medicine’s effect on her nerves.
“Yesterday was hard because I had to work a double and Kathleen couldn’t walk,” Brittany explained.
What’s more, Brittany can no longer work full-time, with weekly visits to the doctor being a necessity. Currently, Brittany and Kathleen are living in Sartell, and they commute to the U of M every Thursday for chemotherapy.
Brittany attended Holy Trinity High School in Winsted for nine years, and she is a 2007 graduate of Annandale High School. She is currently working at the Olive Garden and Granite City in St. Cloud.
The struggles that Kathleen encounters due to her condition do not stop her from living the life of a normal child.
“She definitely has a very loving and caring personality,” said Caouette of Kathleen.
According to Brittany, Kathleen loves to swim, go to the beach, and playing the park, but her favorite activity is playing dress-up.
“She is a creative, clever, and humorous girl, and she’s pretty witty,” Brittany said. “She’s really just a fun, outgoing girl, who loves to meet new people.”
To help Brittany and Kathleen with an increasing number of medical bills, Caouette and several family members are organizing a benefit in Kathleen’s honor.
A spaghetti dinner will take place Saturday, Aug. 28 at the Waverly Village Hall, with a silent auction and raffle throughout the night.
Raffle tickets are $1 each, or six for $5. The first-place prize is two 2011 Winstock general admission tickets and a campsite. Second prize is $100 cash, and third prize is $50 cash.
For the silent auction, organizers have received donations from the Minnesota Twins, Timberwolves, Wild, and Vikings athletic teams. In addition, various gift cards have been donated by businesses throughout the area.
The dinner will begin at 3:30 p.m. and continue until 7 p.m. Tickets for the dinner are $7 when purchased in advance, and $8 at the door, with children ages 5 and under free.
Tickets can be purchased in advance at Jimmy’s Pizza in Winsted or by calling Brittany at (320) 469-0388 or Caouette at (612) 227-1733.
A live DJ will follow the dinner and play from 6:30 to 11 p.m. A bake sale will also take place during the benefit.
Anyone wishing to donate baked goods for the bake sale is encouraged to drop them off in disposable pans at the Waverly Village Hall Friday, Aug. 27 after 6 p.m., or Saturday, Aug. 28 after 11 a.m.
If you cannot attend the benefit and would like to support Brittany and Kathleen, a donation can be dropped off or mailed to Kathleen Riehm Benefit: First National Bank Attn: Cheryl, PO Box 449, Maple Lake MN 55358.
To stay updated about Kathleen, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/kathleenriehm.