Sarah McElheny, 8, is in the fight of her life as she lies in a coma at battling West Nile virus.
Last week, she gave her family reason to hope that the infection was subsiding: Sarah opened her eyes for the first time since August 3, when she was admitted to the hospital with a high fever.
“To see her pretty blue eyes I can’t even explain how good it is,” said Lynn Howard, Sarah’s aunt. “She’s fighting every step of the way.”
Sarah was an active, healthy second-grader at in Oak Lawn when on March 8 her parents received the devastating news that their "funny and tough" daughter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The second-grader immediately began a regimen of chemotherapy with a 90-percent cure rate.
Where many chemo patients, particularly children, suffer such side effects as high fevers that require hospitalization, “Sarah was doing great,” Howard said.
“She was doing very well with the treatment,” her aunt explained. “She was never hospitalized for anything.”
On the morning of August 3, Sarah went to Hope Children’s for a chemotherapy session, and complained that she wasn’t feeling well.
As a precautionary measure, Sarah’s doctor decided to keep her in the hospital overnight for observation.
By the evening, it became clear that something dreadful was happening to Sarah, who celebrated her eighth birthday two days later while in a coma.
Sarah’s family members told Patch that the young girl had not traveled out of the southwest suburbs this summer, so it is likely an infected mosquito in the Oak Lawn area bit her.
Public health officials blame the exceptionally hot weather for this year's bumper crop of mosquitoes. Sarah is the youngest WNV victim in Illinois, which stands at 45 confirmed cases; and 1,590 across the nation—the highest number of cases reported since WNV was first detected in the United States in 1999.
Her aunt, Lorie McElheny, describes the onset of the mosquito-borne virus as seemingly entering through the soles of Sarah’s feet and progressing upward through her body "like an elevator."
“The doctor figured out it was West Nile. It kind of traveled up her body,” Lorie McElheny said. “She had a fever which is normal for chemo. The fever got worse. Her legs and hands started posturing, they turned in and it kept moving up.”
When the virus reached Sarah’s chest, she was put on a ventilator. Her parents, Perry Austin and Patti McElheny, a respiratory therapist at stopped going to work. They have remained at their daughter’s bed side in the pediatric intensive care unit at Hope Children’s ever since.
When word spread through Advocate Christ that one of their own had a child infected with WNV, colleagues quickly banded behind Patti McElheny. Sarah’s aunts, Lynn and Lorie, are also nurses’ assistants at the hospital, and a cousin, Lauren Howard, works in admitting in the ER.
Colleagues are donating their own vacation time to Patti through a program at the medical center that allows employees to donate unused vacation time to coworkers in crisis.
A fundraiser, Smiles for Sarah, is also being organized for the family at 115 Bourbon Street on Oct. 14. Organizers expect 1,000 or more to turn out for the benefit.
“Sarah’s has been in intensive care unit for over a month,” Lorie McElheny said. “Her parents are working people. There is no way they’ll ever be able to pay that off. The whole South Side of Chicago will be there. Everyone knows everyone else somewhere. A benefit is the best thing.”
Sarah has been opening her eyes more, and stayed awake for five minutes to watch her favorite cartoon, Phineas and Ferb on the Disney channel.
The second-grader is no longer running a fever, and the muscles in her hands, arms and leg and have returned to normal. Still, her aunt Lorie said, Sarah is not fully awake.
“Her father was trying to get her to stick her tongue out at me,” Lorie McElheny said. “She can hear and follows voices. She really responds when her older brothers come to visit her.”
The family is hoping that the West Nile virus is leaving Sarah’s body the same way it entered, but this time from the top down.
“We’re trying to get it past her eyes. She moved her cheek a little,” Lorie said of her niece.
In the past week, Sarah, who has been on ventilator and feeding tube for the past month, had surgery performed for a tracheotomy. She is still not breathing on her own.
Another respiratory therapist at the hospital made Sarah a Tinkerbell hospital gown “because ours are so ugly,” Lorie McElheny said.
The nurses at Hope Children’s spend time with Sarah, reading books to her, playing her favorite music and polishing her nails.
A ton of birthday presents also wait to be opened by Sarah.
There is no cure for West Nile virus. Doctors aren’t quite sure yet if the eight-year-old will fully recover. Sarah is not the typical WNV patient because of her leukemia.
When she recovers, Sarah will most likely return to chemo treatments, which have been suspended since she was diagnosed with WNV, as well as hours of therapy to relearn how to walk and talk.
“We’ll have to wait and see how much her brain is going to heal,” Lorie McElheny said. “We don’t know how extensively she’s been injured. I see it so many times at the hospital though, kids’ brains have a way of regenerating themselves way faster.”
Meanwhile, Sarah opened her eyes.
"Smiles for Sarah" runs from 2 to 7 p.m. Sunday Oct. 14, at 115 Bourbon Street, 3359 W 115th Street , in Merrionette Park. Tickets are $30 in advance; $35 at the door, and includes a buffet dinner, beer and wine. All donations are tax-deductible. To buy a ticket, donate a prize or for more information, visit the website, or drop off checks made payable to "Smiles for Sarah" at any Archer Bank.