‘When she’s happy, I’m happy’

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Alyssa D’Agostino can endure a lot: a battle against breast cancer, then leukemia, then a relapse of leukemia.

But when she realized she would not be home for her daughter Gianna’s ninth birthday—that drove her to tears.

“We have to do something.”

Katie Celentino heard that message over and over again from staff members at the bone marrow transplant unit at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, touched by D’Agostino’s sorrow.

And so they did. In 24 hours, they pulled together a purple unicorn party that left Gianna nearly speechless.

The little girl burst into the staff room for the party with a big “Oh!” as she whirled around, taking in the birthday banner, a unicorn drawing on the whiteboard, party hats and a table brimming with colorfully wrapped presents. Nurses and nurse technicians greeted her with a lively round of “Happy Birthday!”

D’Agostino sat beside her daughter, eyes sparkling above her yellow face mask. She wore her party attire, a green tinted wig and a headband decorated with a silver unicorn horn and peach flowers.

“This is so amazing,” she said. “I’m blown away big-time.”

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, D’Agostino underwent surgery and chemotherapy and emerged a survivor.

In July 2017, she learned she had acute myeloid leukemia. It went into remission, but resurfaced in April 2018. Again, she was hospitalized as she began chemotherapy treatments.

In late August, she went to Butterworth Hospital, with plans to get the disease back into remission so she could undergo a bone marrow transplant.

Five straight months in a hospital: That has been her spring, summer and now autumn.

She hoped she would be home for Gianna’s birthday. She had gifts and planned a surprise celebration with family. When she learned that would not happen, she said, “I was devastated.”

And then, she learned a party was in the works on the fifth floor of Butterworth Hospital.

Celentino, the nurse manager, said staff members eagerly joined together to make the day special. Nurses came in on their day off or stayed after their shifts ended. Nurse technician Courtney Fend used her artistic skills to create a birthday banner and unicorn drawing.

Sharing Gianna’s big day was deeply rewarding for the staff, Celentino said.

“We don’t always get to see these moments,” she said. “These are the things that matter to our patients. This is why they matter to us.”

A gift of happiness

Gianna, a third-grader at Chandler Woods Charter Academy in Belmont, Michigan, came to the party with her grandmother, Alice D’Agostino. She wore her Halloween costume—a purple and black outfit with a purple wig. She dressed as Mal from the Disney movie Descendants.

Her mom’s gift made the outfit complete. She gave Gianna a pair of black boots, just like Mal’s.

Gianna bubbled with enthusiasm as she opened her gifts: sparkly pencils and coloring books, fluffy unicorn pajamas, card games, glittery nail polish, hair chalk, a jewelry box and a kit for making her own jewelry.

She thanked everyone and went around the room giving hugs.

Gianna then sat beside her mom and they wrapped their arms around each other.

D’Agostino said the celebration exceeded all her expectations. And seeing her daughter’s happiness was a gift in itself.

“I just loved seeing her face light up,” she said. “When she’s happy, I’m happy. Doing something special for her just makes me feel good.”

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