5-year-old Kailee Kwiecien lays between her parents, Catherine (left) and Dan Kwiecien (right) moments after waking up on Easter Morning, "If she wakes up before us, sometimes we make her crawl in [bed] just in the hope that we will get a little bit more sleep," Catherine says.
Kailee looks out the door to her hospital room, 'on the lookout' for nurse Joe to return with her release paperwork after a 5-day stay over Easter Sunday weekend for inpatient chemotherapy treatment at Golisano Children's Hospital, in Henrietta, NY. In January of 2017, Kailee was diagnosed with her third bout of Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer.
Catherine is comforted by her mother, Anita Manuele after mass at the family church in Brighton, NY. "Church is always really hard for me...it's just one of those places," says Catherine, overwhelmed by her daughter's diagnosis. Both sides of the family live nearby, which has provided tremendous emotional and practical support through Kailee's journey.
Catherine and Kailee head off to the hospital for Kailee's last in-patient chemotherapy treatment. Dan Kwiecien works full-time, many of his shifts being overnight. “Usually we are just kinda passing each other and when he gets home, I leave and when I get home he leaves. On rare occasions we are home at the same time in the evening. So we see each other one day every two or three weeks," says Catherine.
"We have a bag of food, a bag of activities for each of us, a bag of clothes, a bag of toiletries... I don't want to be stuck there without something I need," Catherine says. Kailee usually packs her own bag, as this has become a routine, having been in and out of treatment since she was 2.
Catherine comforts Kailee as her nurse accesses her catheter port to administer chemotherapy. "It depends on who’s accessing her, if it’s a nurse she’s familiar with, she’s fine. If it’s someone new, she freaks out. You can tell in her body language how it’s going to go before it even happens," Catherine says.
Kailee is showered with bubbles and wishes from her first-grade classmates on her 7th birthday at Floyd Winslow Elementary School in Henrietta, NY. Kailee was scheduled to check into the hospital for chemotherapy after school, but it was later rescheduled due to a room shortage.
"Anxiety, tears of fear, sadness, restless sleep, the list goes on. But smiles, laughs, love, snuggles, memories, all still being had... enjoying one day at a time," Dan says, "The reality is, we know we still have a long road. A long road with a lot of unknowns. Where will the road end? I suppose any progress is progress but every ounce of me is hoping for a miracle in the end. A miracle drug, a miracle cure, is this finally the one?"
Catherine and Dan meet with Dr. Korones after suspicious symptoms started to surface, 3 months after Kailee's last chemotherapy treatment, on Friday, April 13th at Golisano Children’s Hospital. “I just don’t see any way we are going to be able to get her through this…” says Dr. Korones, “does that mean I have no hope? No, I still have hope.”
"With this outlook our decisions will be much tougher. There will be things we may try to do to be prepared should the day we fear ever come. Catherine and I have not yet figured out how we could possibly handle the loss of our Kailee," Dan says.
Kailee plays on the swing set with her sister Morgan in their backyard.
Catherine is reunited with Kailee after a MRI scan to check the progress of her first round of chemotherapy treatment this [fourth] diagnosis. "This is the only time she lets me give her so many snuggles, so I have to take advantage of it," Catherine said.
Catherine holds Kailee’s hand as she rests on the couch Saturday, November 7, 2020, at her home in Henrietta, NY. Kailee’s cancer has progressed to a point where she no longer can walk, and is in pain. “She has significant disease in her pelvis and legs which are the prime areas for creating blood/ bone marrow. It doesn’t look good,” Dan wrote on November 9. “We all know that Kailee is a fighter and will hang on as long as she can. Part of me is delusional thinking that Dr. K is wrong. But my gut tells me otherwise. So now a decision to be made, we are in talks about the rest of radiation. We are awaiting the official word, but I think at this point, the inevitable is upon us, and less may be more.”
Catherine and Morgan hold Kailee’s hand as she rests on the couch Saturday, November 7, 2020, at her home in Henrietta, NY.
Kailee passed away at home on November 23, 2020.
“Trying to figure out how I feel is difficult and an internal battle,” Dan wrote in an online journal. “A part of me is in denial and is sad that my baby girl, my hero, the light of my life is gone forever in body. A part of me is relived that she has no more pain. She no longer suffers. No more meds, no more hospitals. It’s a relief of that burden. A large part of me knows she will be in my heart forever. The memories will last my lifetime and the love beyond.”
Kailee’s family releases balloons in her honor during a celebration of life marking the 10th anniversary of her birth on Saturday, June 5, 2021, at Rush Volunteer Fire Department in Rush, NY.