A family were crushed when leukaemia took their 2-year-old daughter. But somehow, she found a way to come back
Vanhi was just three months old when she was diagnosed with leukaemia, and passed away shortly after her second birthday. Since then, the Kaushiks, a Sydney family, have been through an extraordinary journey filled with love, courage, loss and miracle; the kind of journey that you only read about in books or see in movies.
Nidhi Kaushik, Vanhi’s mum, has, for the first time, opened up about their heartbreaking story, about childhood cancer and the power it has to change the life of a family forever. “I have discussed Vanhi’s cancer story with medical professionals including psychiatrists and even counsellors, but I never wanted to get into the details of it all,” says Nidhi.
This journey has been very safely guarded by the Kaushiks that even Nidhi’s parents did not know about their granddaughter’s cancer diagnosis until Vanhi’s passing.
This is a mother’s story in her own words – a story that will shake you to the very core, and yet make you believe in miracles.
The Regular Family
Ours was the typical life of a married couple for almost a year and a half when we found out that we were expecting our first child.
Vishal and I had this longing for a girl baby and were delighted that our wishes were granted. Vidhi was born on 28 March, 2009.
Then, in October 2012, we were thrilled to learn that we were going to be parents to another little girl. Vidhi couldn’t contain her excitement and wait to share a lifetime with her little sister.
A ‘Fire’ was born
On 16 April 2013, Vanhi surprised us by arriving a few weeks earlier than my due date. Not that we were complaining!
Her name means fire, and little did we know that her she would share a personality that matched her name.
Vidhi fell in love with her baby sister instantly. Even Vanhi was very responsive to her didi. Her little eyes sparkled every time her didi was around. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect life.
Vidhi and Vanhi were also very close to their maternal uncle, my brother, Gautam Kapil.
In fact, it was Gautam who would notice something concerning about his youngest niece. Something that would change the course of our lives.
In the same year that Vanhi was born, Gautam was a uni student in Sydney. He would often visit us. On 29 July 2013, Vanhi was crying incessantly. Gautam knew something wasn’t right. He insisted that her cries were unusual and did not seem colicky. I assured him that it was not unusual behaviour for three-month-old babies. But he would have none of it. He wanted us to see a doctor immediately.
At the time, we had moved from Girraween to Penrith. We had moved quite far from our family physician and Vidhi’s paediatrist, Dr Quereshi. We took Vanhi to our local doctor who was certain that something was wrong with my baby. She felt that Vanhi did not look okay and was too pale. The doctor mentioned that my baby was bleeding internally in her tummy and that she needed Vanhi’s blood work done. I was annoyed and it even angered me.
I thought the doctor’s diagnosis was callous and baseless – she’d barely looked at my child and had come to a drastic conclusion. I was determined to prove her wrong and took Vanhi to Dr Quereshi the next day. He was concerned about Vanhi’s pale appearance too and wanted Vanhi to be rushed to emergency. It shattered me.
Finally, we took her to Westmead Children’s Hospital. At the time, we did not think that our association with the hospital wouldn’t be brief.
What followed can only be described as a hellish couple of days till we got her test results back. It pained me to see so many needles piercing my baby’s tiny body.
The doctors performed a lumbar puncture on her. I would have rather died than see her go through it. All I wanted to do was take my baby away from there to the comfort of her home. But I felt utterly powerless.
The results came back, and we were shattered when the doctor said Vanhi has leukaemia. At that time, I didn’t know what it meant. It was the first time in my life I’d heard of it.
But my husband, being a formulation chemist, knew the gravity of the diagnosis. He tearfully explained to me that it was blood cancer. My world came crashing down.
We were in denial and rightfully so. We had no family history of cancer and never imagined my little Vanhi would be affected by it. Children don’t and shouldn’t be suffering from cancer, leave alone a three-month old.
We were sure that there was some mix up in the reports. I wish I would have done anything to make it disappear from our lives.
Life after Leukaemia
As days progressed, we were told that Vanhi had Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML). We learnt that it occurs mostly in adult males and rarely ever affects children. The doctors did not guarantee that Vanhi would be cured of it.
On 3 August 2013, Vanhi’s oncologist began chemotherapy. I ached for my baby.
But Vanhi, true to her name, was fighting this like a champ. Even her doctors observed that she did things that babies her age normally take longer to do. It almost felt like she was in a hurry to fit in all that she could before her time was up. The only time she cried was when she got injections.
Her chemo sessions continued until December 2013. On 16 December 2013, Vanhi’s doctor observed that she had made progress and her chemo sessions would end. Her cancer was officially in remission as of 22 January 2014 after a surgery to remove the central line, that is surgically inserted under the skin to administer chemotherapy, was performed. Our joy knew no bounds and we hugged our baby and vowed to never let her go.
Vanhi was required to go for a follow-up blood work every month until she turned five. The doctors told us that if the cancer didn’t recur before she turned five, there are high chances she may be cancer-free all her life.
We were immensely proud of our little champion. I did not, for even a second, doubt that Vanhi wouldn’t emerge successful in this journey.
2014 was one of the best years of my life. For almost the first time since her birth, Vanhi had a shot at leading a regular life without needles and treatments. We even went on trips and did everything that we couldn’t do since Vanhi’s diagnosis. Throughout all this, Vanhi and Vidhi’s bond only grew stronger.
Vanhi was so fond of her didi that anything we bought for her – regardless of whether it was a lolly or a dress – she’d want the same thing for Vidhi too. They adored each other.
Cancer strikes again
Our joy, however, was short-lived. In March 2015, Vanhi hurt her head against a table and had tiny bump on the side of her head. It wasn’t healing quickly. So, I decided to take her for a general check up to make sure she was okay.
Little did we know that our worst fears were about to come true.
What should have been a simple check-up turned out to be the most damaging visit. The doctors figured out that her platelet count was low and were concerned about her bump not healing sooner.
Then, they delivered the news that felt like a blow to my head. Vanhi’s cancer had relapsed.
I let out a wail and had the hard task of delivering the news to Vishal who was on the phone. He was inconsolable. The girls heard him and started crying too.
On 14 April 2015, just two days before my baby’s birthday, the oncologists scheduled a surgery to place the central line in Vanhi’s body again. I pleaded with them to schedule it after her birthday for which we had planned a big party. Considering how dangerous a delay could be, they refused to wait any longer.
On her birthday, heeding to my requests, the doctors gave me 30 minutes – no more, no less – to celebrate her birthday. She wore her red dress that I picked out for her and cut the cake in the chemo ward. Her nurses and doctors partook in the celebrations.
In that given time, I took her to the hospital courtyard without tubes and needles to click a picture to send to my parents in India. My parents were not aware of her condition and I never shared this with them, my friends or colleagues. I did not want to answer questions, deal with sympathy or worse, pity for our circumstance. The only people who knew of her cancer were my husband’s parents and his brother and sister-in-law who also live in Queensland. I did not want for them to know of this but it was unavoidable and swore them into secrecy to not breathe a word about this.
Dividing my time
Since Vanhi’s relapse, she hardly went home as it was dangerous for her to contract even the slightest of infections. I would divide my time between hospital and home. Vishal looked after Vidhi at home and I would be with Vanhi at the hospital. Every day, Vishal and Vidhi would visit us in the hospital where I would help Vidhi with her homework and the girls would spend time with each other. Vidhi and Vishal’s presence instantly lit up Vanhi. It was hard especially on days when Vanhi would ask if she could go home with her father and sister.
We also had the hard task of making the then seven-year-old Vidhi understand that her sister was being treated for getting good cells in place of bad ones. Her patience, understanding and maturity floored us. She was a wise little soul who never once complained about my absence at home or for not spending time with her.
Towards the end of May, Vanhi came home for the last time and very briefly on a gate pass from the hospital. Her condition worsened in June, as her bone marrow was completely damaged. The doctors even tried to perform a bone marrow transplant but she was not well enough for one. Even then, I never imagined my baby would not survive this ordeal.
After all, her spirit was still intact. Through several painful treatments, Vanhi never stopped being chatty, happy and full of life. She made people around her smile.
But, on 8 July, 2015, she wasn’t being herself. It was that day that everything was different about the baby we knew. She was not smiling as much, and her chatty self was missing.
Something about her quietness was unsettling.
Vanhi grows her wings
Deep inside, I believed that perhaps she was beginning to feel better. That morning, a major heart test was performed and the doctors confirmed that her heart function was normal.
But even Vidhi and Vishal’s evening visit did not cheer her up. In Vanhi’s sombreness, she did not even plead with her father to not leave her like she always did.
Minutes after they left, Vanhi started wriggling in my arms in the most unusual manner. It did not appear normal, and the doctors and nurses rushed to her aid. Just seconds after that, she lay motionless.
She was rushed to the emergency ward. In the meanwhile, I called Vishal and Vidhi who were driving back home to come back. Gautam and his wife Dipti also came to the hospital after I informed them. I also called up Vishal’s brother in Queensland and he took the next available flight out and came with his family to be with us.
After a five-hour attempt, the doctors called us to give her one last hug and kiss. We had to say goodbye to our sweet girl, forever. It was the worst moment of my life.
This is especially difficult to share because just two days before her passing, I’d told her to stop her fight and let go if she was suffering. That said, I also asked her to fight with all her might if she thought she could. It was as if she was waiting for my permission to let go of her suffering forever.
Needless to say, we were inconsolable. Vidhi was so confident that her sister would come home soon and in good health but her dreams were crushed.
Vanhi’s funeral was an intimate event. She was buried in her red birthday dress. It was the first time that I told my parents about Vanhi’s cancer.
Vanhi’s time spent at home may have been short but she left a big void that nothing could fill. Vishal and I were dead inside but we couldn’t stop living. For Vidhi’s sake, we had to pick up the pieces and move ahead. But there was this inexplicable longing to go back to the way things were.
Vidhi’s strange dream
Almost a month after Vanhi’s passing, Vidhi, just out of the blue, declared to us and Vishal’s brother that Vanhi was going to come back. It was all too sudden when she mentioned it. We assured her that may be she would come back into the world into someone else’s home.
But Vidhi would keep telling us that Vanhi appeared in her dreams and told her that she would come back home soon. I could only dismiss that as a sister’s grief.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Two short months since Vanhi’s passing, I wanted to check with Vanhi’s oncologists to see if I was fit to be pregnant again. After constant exposure to chemicals and radiation, I wanted to know if there was a remote possibility.
Also during that time, I had the familiar feelings of pregnancy and wanted to get it confirmed. A chance meeting with a gynaecologist and a blood test that followed, confirmed that I was pregnant with my third child. What Vidhi said came back to my mind. I then declared to Vidhi, Vishal, Gautam and his wife Dipti that Vanhi was coming back again indeed. Just as Vidhi said!
There were tears of joy all around. That pregnancy could have happened several months or years later but it happened shortly after our Vanhi left us. It felt like a sign that my baby wanted to come back to her family – right where she belonged.
We were picking out names for the baby. For a girl, we had in mind the name Navanhi meaning a new Vanhi and for a boy Vanhan, which means desire or longing. Both names have deep symbolism in our lives.
On 12 May 2016, just two days after Vishal’s fortieth birthday, Vanhi came back to us in the form of Vanhan!
Like his sister, he too was premature by a few weeks. It was as if Vanhan was in a rush to be there for his father’s milestone birthday.
Vanhan, or Vanhi as we call him, is a spitting image of his sister whom he will never meet. We were stunned to see how similar both Vanhis’ personalities are! We are ever more convinced that it was our Vanhi who came back to us as a son.
While we were able to cherish Vanhi’s short life and got to know her personality until age 2, we will definitely give Vanhan a shot at developing his own personality.
Vidhi shares the exact same bond with her brother as she did with her sister.
To the world we may seem like a complete family, but how can that be? Our Vanhi is still not with us. While we are grateful for Vanhan’s presence, there will always be that missing piece in the big puzzle that is our life.
In those two short years, Vanhi taught us patience, to smile through adversities and to put up a brave fight when life throws challenges at us. I sometimes blame myself for giving her the permission to leave. There are many mornings I wake up thinking it is all one big nightmare and my life is just perfect. Alas!
But our life is here and now. I wouldn’t stop longing to hold my Vanhi, but wouldn’t change what I have now either. I am not going to spend the rest of my life thinking of the grand scheme of things that life has in store for us. Some days are harder than the others, but I will cherish each one.
Just like Vanhi taught me to.
The Kaushiks have also created a Facebook page in Vanhi’s memory. You can go through it here.
VANHI, NOW AND THEN
A tribute to little Vanhi, by her older sister VIDHI KAUSHIK, 5
Vanhi! You are a life time gift.
You are the best sister ever.
I will never trade you never.
But why did you go.
We can never forget your last day,
At least you came back to us right away.
Mum, dad and I can’t stop crying.
Why did you leave?
Now we are left here to grieve.
But your return is helping us to breathe.
Stay with us forever, four of us together, that’s all we need.
For you to come back was a miracle.
Now that you are here everything is in its place.
It’s just that we will never be back to our pace.
The moment you went, I sank to my feet.
I didn’t realise what happened, not a thing.
But suddenly I had an idea, ‘Bing!’
I sent you a message to come back.
Then you gave me the answer in my heart.
That you will come back from the exact same path.
I love you Vanhi.
You were and you are as beautiful as a blossom.
You were and you are as soft as cotton.
I love you and I will always love you, from top to bottom.
16 April 2013 – 9 July 2015
(Nidhi Kaushik spoke to NANDITHA SURESH)