Dream team unites Stella and Thor

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By Lisa Nightingale

Seven-year-old Stella has been courageously battling the odds since before she was born. At 18 weeks gestation, her mom Chantal and dad Tarek were told their third child would likely not survive. “They told us she tested positive for abnormalities that would impact her ability to survive,” says Chantal. “Every two weeks following that we had an ultrasound, and every time we did, doctors discovered another concern.”

In preparation of Stella’s arrival, Chantal and Tarek met with different specialists at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). “For the first three years of Stella’s life she had appointments every second day with various health-care professionals including neurologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, speech therapists, social workers and many others,” says Tarek. “SickKids became our second home and the dedicated staff became our extended family. We called Stella’s health-care team the Dream Team.”

Dr. David Fisher, Plastic Surgeon and Medical Director of the cleft lip and palate program at SickKids was the leader of this Dream Team overseeing Stella’s care. “Stella’s care is a radiant example of why paediatric health care is a team effort. For patients born with complex health concerns, it is critical that every member of the interdisciplinary team be connected with a unified goal of providing the best quality care,” says Fisher.

Over the past seven years, Stella and her family have continued to access many clinics and programs at SickKids that support Stella’s development and well-being. One of Stella’s personal favourites is Treble Clefts, a choir specifically for kids with facial differences that is co-led by Laurie Russell, Speech and Language Pathologist and Farah Sheikh, Social Worker. “It’s an absolute delight working with these kids as they find their voice and often their confidence,” says Sheikh. “Music and singing can be therapeutic on so many levels and it is my privilege to facilitate this program.”

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Farah has been an important part of Stella’s SickKids journey and has proven to be a great confidant, resource and connector for the family. As a Social Worker Farah is a mental health professional who works collaboratively with children, youth, families, the health-care team and the broader community to improve the lives of the patients she works with. She and her colleagues in the field are leaders in providing evidence-informed clinical assessment, intervention, consultation and teaching. They promote resilience, enhance coping and capacity, and provide expertise at the intersection of mental and physical health in children. By building strong therapeutic relationships they work from a strengths-based, child and family centred, systems perspective. SickKids social workers are an essential component of the overall plan of care for patients and their families.

For weeks, Stella would tell Farah at Treble Clefts practice how desperately she wanted a puppy. Animals and soft furry creatures have been a significant part of Stella’s learning and therapy over the years. Chantal, Tarek and the health-care team at SickKids often use Stella’s passion for animals to motivate her through tasks that are sometimes difficult to inspire. So when Sheikh received an email from a friend of a friend saying her Yorkshire Terrier had just had a litter of puppies and she was looking for a home for a very special one who had been born with a cleft lip, she knew the perfect family.

“When Farah reached out to us to let us know this puppy had defied the odds, and needed an extra special home, we knew this was the puppy Stella had been waiting for,” says Chantal “The dedicated staff at SickKids have a way of going above and beyond and this introduction to our new family member is just one example of how the staff keep patients top of mind.”

Stella and her two brothers named the tiny pup Thor meaning God of Thunder or in their words, Dog of Thunder. “He is powerful,” says Stella. When introducing her new furry friend, Stella points proudly to Thor’s cleft lip and her lip and says that “this is where the lighting strikes to give us our power.”

Stella is training Thor up to be a therapy dog and hopes that one day he will be able to come to SickKids and share his joyful disposition with other kids. “He’s magical just like me,” Stella says. “Together we are going to do great things!”

Lisa Nightingale is a Sr. Communications Specialist at The Hospital for Sick Children.