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Unconditional Love, a Mother's Day story

Jennifer Richmond and daughter Kaitlin Rose take a break at the Greenbank Store Wednesday. - Jeff VanDerford
Jennifer Richmond and daughter Kaitlin Rose take a break at the Greenbank Store Wednesday.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford

When she was young, Jennifer Richmond’s mother, Mary Coupe, gave her some words of advice.

“God has a plan for you,” she said. “Each of us has our own gifts and we should never lose sight of our own strengths.”

As it turned out, Richmond has needed every ounce of strength dealing with her own daughter’s four-year fight with cancer.

Battles have been won, but the war is not over.

The Richmonds have deep roots in the community. It’s been 154 years since a sea captain named Thomas Coupe first took up residence in Penn Cove — history tells us he’s the only man to sail a fully-rigged sailing vessel through Deception Pass.

A brave act, but six generations later Coupe’s descendants, mother and daughter, are dealing with a different kind of courage, facing challenges not so easily overcome by a swift passage through troubled waters.

At the old-fashioned Greenbank Store that’s owned by her father Tom and mother Mary, Richmond quietly spoke about the radiant little girl in a bright apron helping her grandmother make sandwiches for the lunch crowd downstairs.

Richmond is a mother with a simple message: Love for one’s children must be unconditional, regardless of the circumstances.

Kaitlin Rose Richmond will be 7 in July.

Back in August 2002, she was diagnosed with stage four neuroblastoma cancer, “at high risk.” Doctors explained that long-term survival odds range from 10 to 40 percent. Children with aggressively-treated, high-risk neuroblastoma may develop recurrences, some more than five years after completion of therapy.

As it turned out, Kaitlin’s treatment would be very aggressive indeed.

“That day was extremely scary,” Richmond recalled. “My husband Jeff lost his first son to cancer in 1993.”

Over the next year, Kaitlin suffered through five rounds of high-dose chemotherapy, losing both her high-frequency hearing and left kidney in the process.

After her sixth round, doctors prepared her and her mother for a bone marrow stem cell transplant.

“Kaitlin spent over 40 days in isolation at Seattle’s Children’s Hospital until her immune system began functioning,” Richmond said.

Richmond and her husband took a leave of absence from their respective jobs — Jennifer at Whidbey Island Bank and Jeff at Nichols Brothers Shipyard — to stay at the Ronald McDonald House near the hospital.

Both companies provided support and encouragement.

“Some of the guys at Nichols worked overtime to help out,” Richmond said. “The community rallied their support, love and prayers.”

At the house built for relatives of children undergoing treatment, Richmond discovered that strangers became friends, then family as the days and weeks progressed.

“People cooked meals and volunteered to help and we did the same. I didn’t realize this would happen at first. Now it’s my second home.”

Sometimes Kaitlin would ride a little bicycle through the wards, searching for a friend to play with. Watching this, one grandmother observed, “Your daughter has such a light around her.”

Richmond believes that “your soul can shine no matter how well you are physically.”

Surgery and the various therapies — chemo, radiation, immuno and vaccine — took their toll on the family.

It was especially hard for Richmond’s son Tyler, age 14.

“We make sure to tell Tyler how special he is every day. Every kid needs to be told that,” she said.

Kaitlin finally came home in May 2003, well enough to start kindergarten that fall. But the following spring she began complaining of stomach pains.

“She was having trouble walking,” Richmond said. “Eventually a new tumor was discovered on a muscle near her right (and only) kidney.”

More chemotherapy followed, then surgery at the University of Washington to remove the tumor. Under anesthesia, Kaitlin was wheeled to different levels and wings of the huge hospital.

“When the doctor came in I could see on his face a happiness; the surgery worked, the tumor gone,” Richmond said.

Intermittent post-op radiation treatments were continued.

“You know, as I tell the story it’s hard for me to believe I’ve been through all this,” she admitted. “But children are stronger than we give them credit for. And Kaitlin is no exception.”

Close friend and mentor Kathy Adaus noted all the young families the two have touched over the years.

“Jenni has helped so many people at the hospital and Kaitlin has been a shining star for youngsters suffering the same fate,” she said.

Finally, last August, Kaitlin was well enough to ride her pony at a horse show in Reno. She enrolled in school, this time in the first grade to be close to her support group, her school chums.

Still more hospital visits were ahead, however.

“Her energy level was low; she had a rough time,” Richmond said.

Then in November, doctors found another tumor close to her remaining kidney and more high-dose treatments began. She still goes to the hospital every three weeks, from Monday to Friday, but the process is complicated by a tube inserted in Kaitlin to relieve a blockage from her kidney to her bladder.

Richmond said her daughter’s kidney is back to normal, however, and the tumor has shrunk. The tube will soon be removed.

“There’s always stories about a miracle and Kaitlin can be that one, that one survivor who bucks the odds,” Richmond said. “We believe it’s in God’s plans whatever happens.”

This particular miracle in the making gained wings when Kaitlin was adopted into the Sparrow Club, an organization committed to empowering kids to help kids in medical need. Their motto is, “Where hope takes wing.”

Sparrow Clubs was begun in 1992 by Seattle teacher Jeff Leeland when his son was diagnosed with cancer.

“Today Michael’s a healthy young boy but I couldn’t afford the huge costs,” Leeland said. “Our community came together to help and raised $227,0000; it saved his life.

The group arranges for school kids to adopt a child dealing with a medical crisis and finds business sponsors who can help (visit www.sparowclubs.org. for details).

Usually, Kaitlin sleeps all night. When she woke at 3 a.m. recently, Richmond was alarmed.

“She told me she had a dream and said, ‘I’ve been waiting 100 years to meet you. I’m glad I did because you are the best mommy in the world. We will live happily ever after.’”

Richmond felt those words were “A window into eternity for me.”

Kaitlin’s journey continues.

Locals constantly stop by the store and ask how Katie is doing.

On this day at least, Richmond can report her daughter’s right kidney is healthy; she is by turns active, happy, stubborn and reflective, just like any 6-year-old child you might see in the neighborhood.

When Kaitlin finished helping her grandmother she doffed her apron, revealing a T-shirt that stated, “Every day is a Princess day.”

And for her, every day really is.

TEXT box: Despite insurance, the cost to the family has been enormous over the years. Anyone wishing to help can donate to Katie’s Fund at any Whidbey Island Bank or the Sparrow project for Kaitlin.

TEXT box: “I’ve been waiting 100 years to meet you. I’m glad I did because you are the best mommy in the world. We will live happily ever after.”

—Kaitlin Rose Richmond

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