By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 13, 2010 1:50 AM
Layla Williford snuggles up next to her father, Weldon, while he and his wife, Jenifer, explain Layla's battle with cancer. The 2-year-old already has been through emergency brain surgery, chemotherapy and a spinal tap.
Weldon Williford takes his daughter's hands.
"Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man," he says, clapping along with the 2-year-old. "Bake me a cake as fast as you can."
The little girl's blue eyes light up and she gives her best laugh, so her father continues.
"Roll it. Roll it. Mark it with a B," he says. "And throw it in the oven for Layla and me."
Weldon repeats the song several times, watching as Layla starts getting the hang of the hand motions that accompany it.
But the truth is, a cancer battle the little girl has endured since Thanksgiving has taken its toll on her -- in ways that stretch far beyond the story the scars on her head and neck -- ones her light blonde hair can't quite hide -- might tell.
As her parents put it, her mere presence in their home Friday is nothing short of a miracle.
There is just no other way to explain just how courageous their only child remains in the face of emergency brain surgery, eight MRIs, 10 CAT scans, a spinal tap, four ultrasounds and subsequent rounds of chemotherapy.
"In one sense, it's the hardest thing you've ever been through," Layla's mother, Jenifer, said. "But in another, you're just so excited that she's still with you. ... We have to be thankful that Layla is still alive to fight cancer."
But had you asked the Willifords back on March 23 if their little girl would make it to her second birthday -- one Layla celebrated last week -- they might not have predicted she would.
In fact, all they could do during the eight-hour surgery she endured that day was pray.
"The doctor had warned us and told us, 'I might have to stop. Children can't stay open on the table for long.' So we just kind of sat and watched," Jenifer said. "We knew going into the surgery ... that she would either make it or she wouldn't. So during (it), I said to my dad, 'All I can handle today is a miracle. That's all I can handle.'"
Layla had health issues from the time she was a few days old.
At first, she had trouble eating, nursing and sucking on a bottle, her mother said.
"We basically force-fed her until she was like 4 months old," Jenifer said. "It was just one of those things where she ate every two hours and it would take her an hour-and-a half to eat."
But her parents never worried that she was facing something life-threatening.
In fact, they thought she was "a genius baby."
Layla was, after all, talking at 5 months old, despite her health problems.
"We call her 'Layla bug,' and she would go, 'Way bug. Way bug,'" Jenifer said. "But then, 6 months old rolled around and Layla didn't even know what a spoon was anymore. She would be feeding herself ... and then just drop it like she didn't know what it was. And the speech went away. She got really floppy."
The family pediatrician thought the girl might be fighting a brain tumor.
But when, as Layla waited for a CAT scan and participated in physical, speech and occupational therapy, her condition seemed to improve, "we just kind of blew things off and stayed optimistic," Jenifer said.
"She got stronger. And the head tilt she had kind of went away."
Then, an MRI showed "a little bit of water on the brain but nothing major," Jenifer said.
So there was reason to believe that Layla would be OK.
"And by right before Thanksgiving, Layla was walking in her gate trainer. She was feeding herself again. Speech was coming back," Jenifer said. "And we were like, 'Oh yes. By Christmas, she's gonna be walking. This is wonderful.'"
Thanksgiving Day, though, would reveal a much different reality.
"Layla screamed all day long," Jenifer said. "She was just screaming and having problems all day."
And during the weeks that followed, the girl couldn't stop vomiting.
So the Willifords spent much of their Christmas and New Year's holidays at Wayne Memorial Hospital, where their daughter was to endure an MRI.
"The MRI showed that there was some type of lesion on the fourth ventricle of her brain," Jenifer said.
So in light of this new information, the family decided to resume Layla's treatment at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
And as 2009 turned over to 2010, the little girl had surgery to remove the water on her brain and another to insert a shunt.
"Then, from February until March, Layla's brain shrank all the way down in her skull ... and her head filled up with blood," Jenifer said.
And when the doctors performed emergency surgery to help her, they discovered a tumor attached to her brain stem.
"That little spot we had been watching went from the size of a pea to a golf ball," Jenifer said.
One week later, on March 23, Layla endured a surgery that might have killed her and was diagnosed with an Atypical Teratoid Rhabdoid Tumor.
"It's a very aggressive brain cancer," Jenifer said. "The scary thing about this particular cancer, one, it's very, very rare. Only 30 kids a year are diagnosed with it. What happens is the brain and the spine just continue to spawn off tumors.
"So even with going through radiation and chemotherapy, tumors just continue to develop. So it's basically up to God. Either the tumors stop ... or they don't."
Weldon pulls his cell phone out of his pocket and uses it to play a video.
Layla quickly focuses on the screen and nudges her head against his.
"Aw. Layla wants to snuggle," he says.
"She's a snuggle bunny," his wife replies.
The parents seem amazed that their little girl has come so far since the surgery that unfolded just a few months before.
"After the surgery, Layla couldn't even stand up," Jenifer said. "We had to feed her lying on her side."
But what has inspired them the most is just how strong she has remained through it all -- the painful headaches and procedures, the weeks spent away from home in hospitals, the constant vomiting.
"She stayed positive the whole time. She never fussed. She never cried," Jenifer said. "She just kept going."
"She was a trooper. If she was crying, she was in severe pain," Weldon said. "I think it helps keep you going. If she can make it through it, I know we can."
So this evening, the Willifords will face their daughter's illness, again, as they drive to Massachusetts for proton treatment.
"It's basically radiation with very little side effects," Jenifer said.
Weldon grabs Layla's hands and claps them together.
"Did you hear that, Layla? Did you hear that?" he said. "We're going to Harvard."
And they hope that years from now, they will return there -- only then, as proud parents, perhaps as Layla graduates from the esteemed university they have said since the day she was born they hoped she would attend one day.
"We're living moment by moment, but there is definitely the dream to see Layla grow up and watch her become whatever she becomes," Jenifer said.
Weldon nods his head.
"We're doing everything we can to make that happen," he said. "We'll always do everything we can."