Emily Hansen of Osawatomie enjoyed a Christmas of a lifetime thanks to the combined magic of a Florida theme park and a group of Kansas elves. The proof of the magic is still a week away.
Shortly after the dawn of the New Year, the ailing, slender girl, nicknamed “Pumpkin,” who has been battling an aggressive form of cancer for five years, will travel to Orlando, Fla., for an all-expenses-paid stay at Disney World. They will leave Kansas on Jan. 4 and return Jan. 10.
The 9-year-old girl discovered the airline tickets for the family of five on Christmas Day under the family’s holiday tree. That was only the start of several surprises.
Small footprints of Mickey Mouse, beginning at the front door of the living room and snaking across the weathered wood floor to the tree, led to a score of small stuffed dolls of famed Disney characters waiting for her beneath the tree.
Along with the dolls, more than a dozen personally autographed pictures addressed to her from Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Snow White and other Disney stars had appeared overnight on top of family presents and between them under the tree.
There was yet one final happy holiday surprise as well. Sandwiched among several branches of the colorful tree placed in the corner of the room she found 16 traveler’s checks of $100 each to help cover other expenses on the upcoming post-holiday trip.
The Elves of Christmas Present, an anonymous organization of volunteers based in Olathe, had left the Hansen family a Christmas Present to long remember amid medical uncertainties for Christmas Futures with Emily. “She’s very wise. She’s a very strong girl. She knows she’s very sick, and she knows she’s dying,” Sharon Hansen, her mother, said softly. “She has been sick for a long, long time.”
Resting on the sofa in the living room and wearing a Santa Claus cap, Sharon was awake while Emily; her older half-brother, Joe, 10; and her husband of 9 years, Scott, were nestled in bed in a bedroom directly above the living room. Another half-brother, Joshua, was staying with his mother in Blue Springs, Mo.
By that time of night, not a creature was stirring among the family’s brood of pets ---- a black Labrador retriever named “Lucky” and a fat cat called “Smokey Joe” not even a mouse, or Emily”s two white rats.
She also was staying awake to open the door for two elves who quietly knocked on the front door shortly after midnight as Christmas Eve gave way to the beginning of Christmas Day.
“I took the late shift because I have a few more presents to wrap,”
Sharon said with a smile. “It’s surprising what you can do on Christmas Eve after everyone else goes to bed.”
Such as, the opportunity to visit with elves, marveling about the unfolding good deeds that accompanied them, trying to muffle happy expressions to avoid awaking the entire household and counting the many blessings to a family
experiencing a string of Christmas Pasts that found them enduring an emotional, financial roller coaster since cancer was discovered in Emily.
Despite the many strikes against them, Sharon remained upbeat and positive about what lies ahead for her daughter and her family as she watched the elves at work in the living room of the family’s modest, two-story home.
“She has always been my Christmas miracle,” she said. “She always will be.”
Times are tough, but Christmas Present remains bright because of Emily’s presence. She was born during
the holiday season and has been a shining light for the couple throughout the darkest hours and painful times.
For the most part, the family has had more good times than bad memories.
The couple has raised their brood of three children in a house once owned by their parents on the corner of Martin Avenue and Fourth Street near downtown Osawatomie, a Miami County community of about 4,600 about 25 miles south of Olathe. The home is painted light and probably was built sometime in the Depression era.
Sharon is a stay-at-home mother; Scott works for Marley Cooling Tower Company in Olathe.
She marvels about being chosen to have elves in her home as they placed their surprise to Emily in and around the Christmas tree.
“This is going to take a load off her mind,” Sharon said. “She’s going to freak out. They’re all going to freak out.”
‘A ton of bricks’
A different kind of freaking out occurred for the Hansens on Dec. 16, 1999. It was the bad kind. Medical tests detected incurable non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in their daughter, on the eve of her fourth birthday. The cancer had spread to other parts of her body. It was developing as a mighty foe inside her small body.
During the last few years, the disease has been slowed and controlled with an arsenal of chemotherapy, radiation, doses of other cancer-killing medication and even a stem-cell transplant. The treatments resulted in the normal brief loss of hair, vomiting for days, discomfort and pain, causing countless tears, but no lasting effect on her spirit.
The medical treatments have checked the cancer, but failed to put it in checkmate.
“It just kept coming back,” Sharon said. “It would not go away despite how hard we tried and how hard we prayed.”
For the most part, Emily has outsmarted the odds in fighting the disease and normal survival rates. That changed last fall. In September, she was zapped with another round of radiation that was followed by tests indicating no significant presence of cancer and an elusive clean bill of health.
More tests in October revealed the cancer was not gone as hoped. It had returned with an unmerciful vengeance, spreading throughout her lymphatic system and other vital organs.
The doctors told the parents with Emily present at her insistence.
We couldn’t keep her away,” her mother said. “She wanted to know and wanted to hear for herself. She kept saying, ‘It’s my body’.”
The news was disheartening. The cancer was in her lungs, groin, lymph nodes, neck and windpipe. There was little that now could be done medically to stop its progress.
Because it was affecting her respiratory system, Sharon said, she was advised to make sure her daughter went to sleep in a position that allowed her to breathe as best she could.
“They said to be prepared that one night after we go to sleep, Scott will wake up, Joe will wake up, I will wake up, and Emily won’t,” her mother said.
“She got it all over her. That whole day was a nightmare. The whole day was just a big haze. It was like a ton of bricks fell on our laps.”
‘Just a silly girl”
For the most part, Emily Hansen is like most Kansas girls and easily masks the fact she’s sick in both appearance and spunk.
“I have cancer. That’s all I’m saying,” she said matter-of-factly on Christmas Day without further elaboration.
Sitting in a chair in the living room with a lap covered by Disney dolls that she found under the Christmas tree, Emily was dressed in cheerleader pajamas, was somewhat shy and maintained relentless courage.
Her parents described her as talkative and assertive, a stark contrast of her mood in mid-morning Christmas Day.
She loves horses, likes pink and purple and enjoys coloring and writing. Emily is fond of her pet rats named “Scraps” and “Scooby,” who she often takes on rides around the neighborhood in a toy van.
A thin girl with short brown hair, Emily is a second-grade student at Trojan Elementary School. She was held backm one year after missing so much school after undergoing a stem-cell transplant two years ago in a quest to arrest the disease. It failed.
She loves and tolerates her two older brothers and her parents, of course, along with a family tree filled with many aunts and uncle; cousins, nephews, and nieces by the scores; along with doting grandparents.
Spoiled? Of course, answers her mother.
“She’s pretty set in her ways,” Sharon said with a laugh. “She’s just a silly girl and likes to make funny faces.”
Emily talked little about her disease. Asked about her health, her response was candid. “Can we please change the subject?” she said.
Asked about her upcoming trip to Florida, her response was a small smile. “I’m ready to go,” she said.
Her parents agreed. “We’re happy that she will be healthy enough to go,” her mother said. “We’re happy that she’s alive, and even though we’ve been through some pretty tough times, we appreciate life more and appreciate the important things in life.”
In her own little way, Emily agreed the trip will be a memorable time for her and her family. “It makes me happy when they’re happy,” she said.
‘An unfulfilled wish’
The 2005 trip to Disney World will be the family’s second since the cancer was detected. The first trip, arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, occurred in November 2000.
Unfortunately, Emily came down with chickenpox just before the flight to Orlando with no chance for them to cancel the trip. She was a very sick girl after the family arrived in Florida. They stayed at the Give the Kids The World Village for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families for only one night. They were asked to go to a motel to avoid the risk of affecting other vulnerable sick children with chickenpox.
The chickenpox took its toll on her. “She had crops of chickenpox on top of crops of chickenpox,” Sharon said. “She could not do anything because she was so sick. It was horrible.”
Scott agreed. “She had chickenpox inside and outside her body,” he added. “She even had it in her right eye.”
For the most part, Emily spent a bulk of the trip inside the motel room. The family could not even cut short their holiday vacation because the airlines would not allow them to board until a doctor confirmed the disease was no longer contagious.
By the time they received clearance for a return flight to Kansas, Emily’s battle with chickenpox was still at a stalemate. She had to spend five days at Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Mo., in her recovery.
Because the family had gone on the trip four years ago, they were not eligible for another trip to Florida through the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
That fact prompted the attention of the Elves of Christmas Present.
“We considered it a wish unfulfilled since Emily was too sick to enjoy herself,” Chief Elf in Olathe said. “We thought it was appropriate to fulfill her original wish.”
Arrangements also have been made with the Give Kids The World Village for the family to stay next month and with Disney World to give Emily the royal treatment during her stay.
The trip also has another plus. “I already have had chickenpox,” Emily said. “I can’t get them again. I won’t be sick this time.”
‘The greatest gift’
Emily Paige Hansen celebrated her ninth birthday on Sunday, the day after Christmas Day with family members and friends.
By that time, the family had taken down the Christmas tree to allow more room for the celebration and to put a little distance between a holiday event and a birthday party.
“She was my Christmas baby,” Scott said with a smile.
“She was our greatest Christmas gift of all,” Sharon added.
Sunday’s celebration found their daughter showing off her Disney dolls, chatting about the upcoming trip to Florida, now being hugged and giving countless hugs throughout the day. It was a time of being loved and giving love.
To her, the events surrounding the return to Disney World remained mostly a mystery that occurred late Christmas Eve with airline tickets, money, stuffed dolls and messages to her on autographed pictures of Disney characters.
She knew the special gifts came from someone, but rolled her eyes at the mention of a late-night visit by Santa Claus.
“I don’t believe in Santa,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense. That’s all I’m going to say.”
Her mother had predicted that response well in advance, knowing her daughter so well. Yet, she offered a final thought.
“That may be true for her,” Sharon said with a smile. “But we do believe in the magic of Christmas and the magic of elves.”
GERALD HAY, The Olathe News