Danielle Christiane Auger’s life was a lesson in courage. This is her story, written with love by her mom Donna Coleman.
Danielle was born February 25th 1981. Her entrance into the world was not the most graceful as she was folded in two, fanny first. Nonetheless she arrived safely three weeks early. She was outspoken and feisty always. The mass of naturally curly multicolored hair was always blowing in the breeze. She loved bossing her two brothers around. One was 16 months older and the other 19 months younger. She was very protective of her brothers and gave them the extra mothering she felt they needed.
When Danielle turned five, she was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes. She was just like her older brother who was also diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the same age. At age seven, Danielle suffered a diabetic coma. This was caused by a flu bug and lack of proper insulin given by me, her mother. The doctors said she could die because of my lack of good judgment with her insulin needs. I remember talking to Danielle the whole time she was in a coma and telling her I needed her to come back to me. After several days in a coma, she woke up. She was a fighter even then.
During her elementary school years she was always getting into some mischief. One day I found her up on a window ledge over the parking garage in the basement. She wanted to be free to do what her brothers were doing like riding bikes and fishing. I could only dress Danielle in pretty dresses until she was old enough to refuse. She definitely had a mind of her own.
Danielle’s teen years were normal as a teenager, experimenting with cigarettes, trying pot (which made her turn green and very sick to her stomach), and the occasional alcoholic beverage. She had tons of guy and girlfriends. When she was a late teen she was diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy, her whole body hurt. She was hospitalized for three months as they tried to figure out why she was so sick. Her stomach was paralyzed, her nerve endings raw, her blood pressure like a bouncing ball. She battled a lot of pain as she dropped thirty pounds and refused to see any friend as she said: “Who would want to see her that way?” After a few more months she began to recover.
Later on in her early twenties, she was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. She had many issues with bleeding in the eyes. Of course she was stubborn and was still smoking on occasion. She needed many visits to the retina specialist and to undergo painful laser procedures. I remember one extremely painful incident where they inserted a needle into her eye to numb it. A terrible ordeal and she looked as if she had been punched. So many laser treatments resulted in scar tissue over her retina. At this point the doctor said she was going to lose her eye sight in one eye. Surgery was an option to remove the scar tissue, but it also presented a high risk for blindness just the same. Danielle bravely went ahead with the surgery, as she was too young to lose her sight. She also stopped smoking to my great relief.
Shortly after that Danielle went to the hospital with complaints of pneumonia and the doctors said: “Your blood work shows your kidneys are starting to fail.” I remember her calling me and telling me: “Mom I have kidney failure.” Danielle never tried to hide anything. She always faced every challenge directly. She never lived in denial. We had no idea how long her kidneys would last. It is a process and you just wait and see month to month how much more time you can get out of them. Not to mention the countless medications she had to take. Endless doctor appointments and consults were done. Finally, after a couple years, the kidneys were not functioning anymore and the decision was made to start dialysis. Danielle decided to do home dialysis also known as peritoneal dialysis. She was in charge of the housekeeping department at a local upscale hotel. Being able to do home dialysis helped her to continue to have a somewhat normal life. She met the love of her life during this time and they bought a house together. Nicholas was perfect for Danielle as he was kind, caring and also not afraid to face things head first.
After a few years, Danielle got the phone call to say the hospital had a kidney and pancreas for her. We had all been going through testing to donate a kidney, but in a perfect world a pancreas would be the “cure” for the diabetes and thereby getting a new one would protect the new kidney. I remember that day so well. Danielle called me and said: “Hi mom, I don’t want you to freak out, but they called and said they have a new kidney and pancreas for me, so I have to go to the hospital right away. I’ll see you down there.” I was out for the evening at a cancer fundraiser and came home to find this message on my answering machine. By the time I got to the hospital it was after midnight and the atmosphere was one of such joy and celebration. The surgery was performed later on that day. She was discharged after about 5 days, doing fantastic. Unfortunately an infection got the best of her incision and she was re-hospitalized for a few weeks. It was a very difficult recovery as one thing kept leading to another. She questioned herself a few times, if it was worth taking the risk. The infections would not let up and the countless doctors and medications were starting to wear her spirits down.
Being the trooper she was, Danielle finally rebounded and began the recovery of transplant surgery. Doctor appointments every few days downtown were exhausting, but finally over time, the appointments were not as frequent. Danielle gained strength over the next couple of years. The first year was tough. Finally Danielle was given the go ahead to go back to work. During the second and third years into her transplant recovery Danielle felt and looked her best ever. Her spirits were soaring, her health, its best ever. She had been given the gift of life. She and her boyfriend Nicholas got engaged and started to talk about planning a wedding. Over 20 years of her life had been spent feeling unwell; finally to be able to plan a future was the best. Danielle loved to entertain and plan parties. Danielle loved candles and was highly organized. One day she said to me, “I am turning into you mom, I sound like you, I like doing the same things as you.” I told her that was my proudest moment!
She and Nicholas wanted to have a child. The transplant doctors gave her the go ahead to get pregnant as it had been a few years now since the transplant. I remember the day Danielle invited us over for a picnic and she and Nicholas announced they would become parents. After feeling so unwell for so long, it was wonderful to see her happy and excited to become a mother.
Two months later everything started to crumble. Danielle had high risk doctor appointments quite often to ensure a healthy pregnancy. She said it was worth it, but that she would only be doing this once. Wedding plans were put on hold until after Olivia arrived. One day Danielle was told she was having a bit of pancreas rejection. She would be required to take considerable anti-rejection medication. It was uncertain how it would affect the baby, but it seemed she had little choice, but to go ahead and listen to the doctors’ advice. Ten days later swollen glands appeared on one side of her neck. I remember she was at my home and complaining of a sore neck. Countless doctor appointments and tests were done. All avenues were exhausted until one day she went to see a “lymph node specialist” (aka oncologist).
A painful bone marrow test was done without any pain relief medication due to the pregnancy. Danielle was twenty weeks pregnant at the time. At first the doctor said that all was clear and that it did not appear to be leukemia. But then a phone call a few days later changed the course of the rest of Danielle’s life. She was diagnosed with AML. Acute myelogenic leukemia is a very aggressive form of leukemia. The high risk OB doctor said we should start chemotherapy right away, as it was most important to save Danielle’s life.
The first round of chemotherapy started. Olivia was checked daily. Her little heartbeat was good and the pregnancy seemed to be going fine. Another painful bone marrow test was done also without pain relief. It has to be the worst test ever invented, or one of the worst. Danielle faced the countless doctors, thousands of blood tests and examinations. After the first round of chemo, Olivia was in the 27th week of gestation. Danielle was going to go home with a weekend pass but an ultrasound revealed the baby had no amniotic fluid and delivery of Olivia was urgent as she was in distress. Olivia was born by C-section at 27 weeks, weighing in1 ½ lbs. She battled to live for 19 hours, it was not to be. This event crushed Danielle and Nicholas. I remember the joy in Danielle’s face as she would hear the heartbeat of Olivia. The sorrow was overwhelming as this was the only bright spot in the midst of battling leukemia. Instead of going home for the weekend, Danielle was recovering from a C-section and the loss of her only child. One week later she started round two of chemotherapy.
The second round of chemo seemed to be working. The multitude of doctors and testing was unending. Danielle faced each test with such courage. The doctors wanted to do a major bronchoscopy with wash, etc. They explained the risks. I told Danielle she could always refuse any test. Some days it was just one test after another. She and Nicholas always discussed each big test. She agreed to do as the doctors asked. She said it felt like she was suffocating and drowning at the same time, as the test was being done. I don’t think I would have been so brave. I probably would have refused to have the test altogether. After the second round of chemo, there was a third. The leukemia was gaining speed and aggression. We were losing our battle. At Christmas time, we were told that there was nothing more they could do. How do you cope when the doctors say they is no hope. Danielle looked at me and said: ”Why are all these bad things happening to me mom? I don’t want to die, what did I do wrong?” How do you, as a mother, answer those questions?? Danielle had suffered so much loss: five bone marrow tests, three rounds of chemo, endless blood transfusions, CT scans, ultrasounds, etc. Danielle was not ready to give up. We opted for ten radiation treatments and naturopathy. We got special permission for the naturopathic doctor to treat her. Danielle kept on living every day. No one knows how much time you have left when they say your time is up.
Danielle’s vision took a beating with all the blood thinners, low platelet count, blood pressure issues. Danielle’s spirit remained intact. She managed to get home for about three weeks. The last three weeks of Danielle’s life were the worst. She hated needing help to walk, she was in pain, she became disoriented, and she lacked oxygen. She was readmitted to the hospital. She told the palliative care doctors she was not afraid. She was content to know she would be with her infant daughter Olivia. She would still be bossy, complaining when I would rub her hand. She would speak up in the middle of a conversation we were having, even though we thought she was asleep. Danielle died after a five month long battle with leukemia. Her funeral was on her 31st birthday, February 25th 2010
Our hearts are broken as the light and center of our family is gone. No one knows why some people have to endure so much in their lives. Life is not fair sometimes. Danielle had so many health issues and she faced each situation head on. She never hid from the truth. She faced her life with so much courage and fire. Her feisty attitude carried her through the darker times. She never gave up.
I hold Danielle close inside my heart now. I can only hope to live the rest of my life with such courage. She taught me so much. She lived life, she loved life, she loved Nicholas, she loved her doggies, she left her imprint in our hearts forever. As Danielle reminded us all….life is precious, time is short, and there are no guarantees.
LIVE, LAUGH, LOVE