For Natasha and Darren Ferris, whose daughter Brooklyn underwent brain surgery at the Teck Acute Care Centre at BC Children’s, and subsequently needed acute rehabilitation at Sunny Hill in East Vancouver, moving from one facility to another was challenging. Natasha and Darren believe that having Sunny Hill at the Oak Street campus will significantly ease that transition for patients and their families.
It all began in January 2018, when then-13-year-old Brooklyn began feeling light-headed and nauseous. “She was throwing up every day, like clockwork,” recalls Natasha, Brooklyn’s mom. “Everyone thought it was the flu. So we had to keep her at home, because the school’s staff didn’t want her getting other kids sick.”
Despite many doctor’s visits, a couple of emergency room visits to BC Children’s Hospital, as well as sessions with psychiatrists and counsellors, the tests showed nothing conclusive. And it had simply gone on for too long.
“Eventually, our doctor thought Brooklyn should return to school, for her own psychological wellbeing,” says Natasha. But going to school with an undiagnosed illness became a different type of trial for Brooklyn. “She’d excuse herself, go throw up, then return to class, about three times a day, every day, for three months,” says Natasha. This was very difficult for a young woman who just wanted to be like everyone else.
Fast-forward to April 2018, to yet another visit to BC Children’s Hospital. One of the pediatricians noticed that Brooklyn’s balance was off and ordered a CT scan.
"When we came back," says Darren Ferris, Brooklyn’s dad, "there were two doctors in the room, and the hair went up on my neck. They advised us that Brooklyn had a brain tumour and that she’d be in surgery the next day. It was like being punched in the gut. I couldn’t spit out the news to Natasha without sobbing."
Brooklyn’s surgery was very successful, removing 90 per cent of the benign tumour that had been causing her loss of balance and nausea. "When she came out of surgery, she was herself. We thought we had beat it," remembers Natasha.
But as the days went on, Brooklyn started losing more and more of her motor skills, as well as her speech. Brooklyn was diagnosed with Posterior Fossa Syndrome, a very rare complication from brain surgery. She would need extensive speech therapy and physiotherapy to get her motor skills back.
"We knew her brain had been through so much trauma," says Natasha, "but we didn’t know the road to recovery would be so long."
That’s when Brooklyn was referred to the Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children in East Vancouver, to the Acute Rehabilitation inpatient unit.
For Natasha, the transition from the hospital to Sunny Hill was quite traumatic.
“I was still trying to process it all, and I had to watch my daughter being loaded into an ambulance, being asked so many questions when she had just lost her ability to speak.”
“The new Children’s [Teck Acute Care Centre] is so bright and warm, you feel at peace being there, even when you’re scared. They’ve done such a great job with the space. Sunny Hill is an older building, without much natural light, and because of how I was feeling that day, it felt a bit scary. We arrived at 3 p.m. when most doctors were going home, so we only got to meet our nurse. That was one of our hardest moments.”
But over the coming days, Natasha and Darren began to feel more at ease. “We were so happy with all the nurses, the therapists, the staff,” says Natasha. “We grew comfortable, and we couldn’t have asked for better care.”
“At Sunny Hill, the staff take the time to get to know each family and their story,” adds Darren. “They are so positive, and the meetings with Brooklyn’s care team were so informative.”
Brooklyn remained in Sunny Hill’s inpatient unit for almost one month, and in the outpatient unit for another several weeks. She was under the care of a varied and comprehensive team of therapists, including a speech therapist (talking and writing skills), an occupational therapist (cooking, navigating streets, chores), and a physiotherapist (balance, movement, and strength).
She also worked with a music therapist, singing to strengthen her voice, playing instruments to improve her fine motor skills, and using music to improve her focus and concentration skills. Finally, her team included a recreation therapist and a recreation/aquatic therapist.
Initially, Brooklyn’s therapy team thought she might get about 70% of her motor skills back. But Brooklyn was very determined, telling her parents repeatedly that she would get through this. And she surpassed all of her specialists’ prognoses.
“They couldn’t believe how quickly she recovered,” says Darren. “In a couple of weeks, she was walking down the halls. She insisted on going to the bathroom by herself. Every day, she got up with such determination. We consider ourselves so lucky.”
After the surgery back in April of 2018, Brooklyn’s care team had been optimistic that the portion of the tumour that couldn’t be removed because it was on the brain stem would eventually shrink and disappear. But instead, it grew faster than anyone had anticipated. The growing tumour was causing hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the brain, which in turn was throwing off Brooklyn’s balance once again and bringing back the nausea.
Brooklyn went in for a second surgery in February 2020. This time, Darren and Natasha had the idea to organize a fundraiser for the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation.
“We wanted to use that time that she was in the actual surgery – all that waiting around – wisely,” says Darren. So they designed a t-shirt with the slogan “#🐝💪” (#beestrong) and promoted it to their network of family and friends. “We had planned to sell 25 of these shirts,” laughs Darren, “and we sold 177. We raised $2,200 for the Foundation.”
For Darren and Natasha, who had been through so much but had received such incredible care for their daughter, it was important to give back.
Brooklyn recovered well from her second surgery, and did not experience any complications. She is currently undergoing a trial run for a new chemotherapy medication.
“Oncology thinks the tumour will always be there,” explains Darren, “but that the chemo will prevent it from growing and causing the buildup of fluids in the brain. Their hope is to prevent repeated surgeries.”
Natasha and Darren are most looking forward to seeing Brooklyn get back to doing the things that most teenagers do.
“Brooklyn doesn’t even talk about her health with her friends,” explains Natasha, “because she doesn’t want to be the different one. She’s found this really challenging – having doctor’s appointments, being in and out of hospital. She just wants to be like every other teenager.”
“I want to see her ride her bike again,” continues Natasha. “She doesn’t have the confidence to do it right now, because of her lack of balance. It’s going to take time. It’s something she has to do when she’s ready.”
Many of the children requiring acute rehabilitation at Sunny Hill are moved there after receiving surgery at the Teck Acute Care Centre (Teck ACC) at BC Children’s. When the new Sunny Hill facility opens on the Oak Street campus on August 30, 2020, one of the key benefits to patients and their families will be the ease of that transition.
For Natasha, the move between facilities after her daughter’s surgery was one of the most difficult aspects of the recovery process. “I found it a lot to move from one place that I just gotten used to, to another,” she recalls. With Sunny Hill on the same campus as BC Children’s, the move from the Teck ACC will involve being wheeled down a corridor instead of being loaded into an ambulance and driven to East Vancouver, eight kilometres away.
Having a facility filled with natural light will be another key benefit. “Some of these kids [in Acute Rehab] are not able to get outside,” says Natasha. “Natural light makes such a difference.” In the new facility, all the inpatient rooms are positioned along the exterior walls of the building, with windows letting in ample natural light.
The 18 single inpatient rooms will each have a private washroom, a television, a mini-fridge for personal food storage, and space for families to visit and sleep. The common areas include a dining room and family lounge with skylights, and all the kitchen amenities that families need to make their own meals. An outdoor patio will be used for both therapy and family relaxation.
But having a new, purpose-built facility, however well-designed, is just one aspect of creating that atmosphere of home. “The current Sunny Hill building may be a bit run down, but the staff made the experience so incredible,” says Darren. “I can’t speak more highly of the therapists, the nurses, and the staff. Occasionally, we bring Brooklyn by there just to say hi. It will be nice to have a new building, it will make the experience that much better for families, but I almost wonder if going to a bigger, newer facility will affect that sense of community?”
“I don’t think so,” intercedes Natasha. “It all comes down to the staff, and the Sunny Hill staff really make you feel like you’re part of their family. They make Sunny Hill feel like home.”
The BC Children's and BC Women's Redevelopment project is a joint initiative of the Province of British Columbia and the Provincial Health Services Authority (PHSA), with additional funding provided through donor support by the BC Children's Hospital Foundation and the BC Women's Health Foundation. Learn more about Sunny Hill's move to the BC Children's Hospital campus