The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A mother Googled her toddler’s symptoms — and believes it may have saved the child’s life

Tazmin  <span class="_5yl5">Handley-Carpenter. </span> (Courtesy of Laura Handley)

It was a headline that captured her attention: “Boy, 13, died just A WEEK after being diagnosed with leukemia despite having NO symptoms beforehand.

Laura Handley, a mother of five, had been scrolling through Facebook when she was sucked into a story about a seemingly healthy 13-year-old boy who had died suddenly from an aggressive form of cancer called acute myeloid leukemia.

Curious about the disease, she decided to search for the symptoms on Google. The results came back with “fatigue, fever, or loss of appetite.”

Then: “bruising easily.”

Then: “red spots on skin.”

Then: “night sweats.”

“I thought, ‘Oh my god,’ ” Handley recalled that moment in the summer when her thoughts locked on her 22-month-old daughter. “I started panicking.”

Yes, her daughter, Tazmin, did bruise easily — something the mother had reasoned was simply due to her “clumsiness.” Tazmin also had red spots, or petechiae, which are caused when capillaries under the skin break open and bleed. Although petechiae can be a sign of leukemia, it can also be caused by things like a bad cough or sunburn, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Still, Handley was worried. She messaged her mother and her best friend. She even told her neighbor. They told her not to be “silly.”

“You know when something tells you to do something? I just got that urge when I read that news article,” Handley said, recounting her story this week in a phone interview with The Washington Post.

The mother, from Tenbury Wells, a town in Worcestershire, England, woke up the next morning and took her daughter to the doctor.

After medical tests, Tazmin was diagnosed with myelodysplasia, sometimes known as a “pre-leukemic disorder,” and within days, the condition had progressed to acute myeloid leukemia.

“I think it did save her life — me Googling her symptoms,” Handley said.

Three goodbyes in three days: Why these parents watched their children die at home

By all appearances, Tazmin was a happy and healthy toddler — just “clumsy.” Handley said that Tazmin started walking when she was 10 months old and would often trip and fall and sometimes play a bit rough with her older siblings. “The bruises were mostly on her legs so we put it down to her age and how clumsy she was,” she wrote about their experience in a Facebook post.

Tazmin kept getting petechiae, but Handley thought the little red spots were just heat rashes.

“She also had night sweats which we didn't even think about till after she was diagnosed and saw it was a symptom,” Handley wrote in the post.

On July 5, everything changed.

Handley said she doesn’t remember exactly what she told medical staff about her online sleuthing when she showed them her daughter's bruises; she only remembers it was the day “our world crumbled.”

Handley explained it all on “Tazmin's Fight Against AML leukemia,” a Facebook page where she has been chronicling her child's cancer diagnosis and treatment. She believes her Internet search helped doctors spot the illness at a very early stage.

Not even a day after searching for leukemia symptoms online, Handley rushed Tazmin to the doctor's office and was immediately directed to take the toddler to a hospital in Worcester for blood tests.

The results showed that Tazmin had a low-platelet disorder. Her mother was preparing to take her home when a nurse called them into a separate room. “You're scaring me,” she told the nurse.

A doctor and nurses gave her the frightening news: They said that Tazmin had leukemia. Handley started screaming, “no, no, no!”

She tried to call Tazmin's father but couldn't reach him. When she finally got him on the line, “he just broke down,” she said.

Handley said they were sent to a nearby children's hospital where Tazmin underwent a bone marrow biopsy; those results showed that she did not yet have leukemia, but a condition that sometimes proceeds it called myelodysplasia. The Leukemia Foundation describes it “as a group of diseases that affects normal blood cell production in the bone marrow.” About 30 percent of patients with the disorder eventually develop acute myeloid leukemia, according to the organization.

Less than two weeks after her biopsy, Tazmin's condition progressed — and she was diagnosed with leukemia, her mother said.

Tazmin was immediately admitted to a hospital, where she started chemotherapy and later received a bone-marrow transplant. The treatments worked.

Tazmin, now 2, is in remission, her mother said.

“I used to say to my friends whilst changing her nappy ‘look at her legs’ but we said surely it couldn't be anything to worry about as she was perfectly fine,” Handley wrote on Facebook. “How wrong were we.”

Jennifer Shu, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said the case Handley first read about is unusual — explaining that there are typically signs that something is wrong.

“You have to look at the child overall,” said Shu, a pediatrician at the Children's Medical Group in Atlanta. “If the child is happy and active and doing usual activities, it's probably nothing serious. But if you notice a sudden change in the child's activity or personality — and it doesn't get better — get it checked out by a pediatrician.”

The doctor said that the Internet can be a good tool for parents, but she cautioned that search results for medical conditions can be tricky — looking up “leukemia,” for example, might yield a news story that has garnered a lot of attention but might not apply to the majority of people experiencing similar symptoms.

“A parent's intuition is very valuable,” Shu said, explaining that parents know their children best. “If in doubt, seek care. But you have to put online searches into perspective.”

Still, Handley said, she didn't know which symptoms to look for until she searched for them online. Now, the mother said she wants to raise awareness about the warning signs of leukemia.

“They say you shouldn't Google anything about health, but you have to trust your instinct,” Handley wrote on Facebook, linking to the story that sparked her search. “I just knew something was wrong with our princess after reading this and then googled the symptoms.”

Read more:

‘We had no hope’: The amazing story of the baby born with his brain outside his skull