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At Children’s National Medical Center, a little girl keeps her spirit, and her life

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When you become a parent, you quickly memorize every square inch of your child’s body. Soft skin becomes a familiar map, each freckle or strawberry a landmark. Any bump, bruise or blemish is a new and alien feature.

And so it was with the mother of Zoie Prandy, a little girl from Bowie. In 2009, when Zoie was 3, her mother, Lisa, was giving her a bath when she noticed a slight swelling on her daughter’s left side.

“I was poking her,” Lisa said, “asking ‘Does that hurt?’ ”

It didn’t, actually. But the swelling was enough that when Zoie had been toweled dry, Lisa asked her husband, Charles, whether he knew if anything unusual had happened to their daughter recently. As a matter of fact, he said, she had fallen during a trip to the park that day. Maybe the bump had caused a soft-tissue injury of some sort.

Lisa took Zoie to the pediatrician the next day. Zoie wasn’t in pain, and there were no other symptoms, so they agreed to keep an eye on it. When the swelling hadn’t subsided by Zoie’s 3-year-old checkup two weeks later, the pediatrician ordered X-rays. Soon Zoie was on her way to Children’s National Medical Center. Doctors suspected something called a Wilms tumor: a cancer growing on Zoie’s kidney.

“That story is pretty typical,” said Dr. Jeffrey Dome, chief of oncology at Children’s Hospital. “Usually, kids with Wilms tumors are pretty healthy aside from their tumor, and something happens that just brings them to medical attention, something serendipitous like taking a fall in a playground. Another typical scenario is the parent is giving the child a bath and the belly looks big.”

Zoie had a Stage 4 Wilms tumor. It had encircled her left kidney and sent a cancerous tendril around her inferior vena cava, a vessel that carries blood to the heart. Tiny tumors peppered her lungs.

Her mother is still amazed at how well Zoie took it all. “I believe in being totally honest with kids,” Lisa said. “I said, ‘You know that thing growing on your side? It’s a tumor.’ . . . When things were explained to her, she was fine with it.”

The tumor was too big for immediate surgery. Months of chemotherapy shrank it down, then surgeons removed Zoie’s left kidney and untangled the tumor from around her vein. Radiation followed.

Zoie lost her hair, but not her spirit. “I knew she was well-adjusted when she would go to a party and take her hat off,” Lisa said.

Zoie’s prognosis is excellent. She’s 5 now, takes dance classes with the Joyful studio and plays with little sister Kaia. She was a picky eater before — the tumor had pushed into her stomach, making it smaller — but has since broadened her palate. Her parents have noticed other changes, too. A stethoscope is among her favorite dress-up toys.

“There’s definitely more maturity in certain aspects,” Lisa said. With the tumor safely removed, Zoie told her mother she wanted to see what one looked like. Lisa Googled “Wilms tumor.”

“Little things like that is when she doesn’t seem like a typical 5-year-old,” Lisa said. (Zoie’s reaction: “Eww, that’s gross.”)

A child can’t help but be affected, mentally and physically, by an experience such as Zoie’s. She has a new feature on her body: a scar that reaches from the top of her sternum to her navel. Zoie asks her mother why it isn’t going away.

Said Lisa: “She still prays every night for it to go away, and it’s still there every morning.”

Lisa tells Zoie not to look at the scar as a negative. “Look at it as a positive,” Lisa said. “That’s a reminder that you’re here.”

Time to help

We’re lucky to have Children’s Hospital in our back yard and even luckier that it treats everyone, regardless of ability to pay. It can only do that, however, with the support of the community.

Monday marks the start of our annual fundraising drive for Children’s. My goal is to raise $500,000 by Jan. 6. All of the donations go to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund. That money is used to pay the bills of children whose parents don’t have adequate insurance.

To make your tax-deductible donation, send a check or money order (payable to “Children’s Hospital”) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390. To donate online with a credit card, go to washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital. Thank you.

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