Caring for Eliza

Church reaches out to cancer-stricken infant

Nathan and Jessica Fortner have been facing a tough time these days.

Their 7-month-old daughter, Eliza Mae, was recently diagnosed with a form of cancer called glioma astrocytoma.

A brain tumor.

A neurologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., informed the Lawrence couple of their daughter’s diagnosis June 8, after the results of a CT scan and an MRI — sophisticated tests that revealed a growth pressing on Eliza’s optic nerves.

“I had a gut feeling. At that (CT) scan, they’ve got an observation room … I saw a woman walk in and say, ‘It’s big.’ I saw her say this. You just want it not to be what they say it is,” said Jessica, 28.

Her husband, Nathan, 30, was equally stunned.

“There’s that initial shock. You’re not even angry — you can’t even figure out why (this has happened),” he said.

Since the Fortners received the news, Eliza has been in Children’s Mercy twice for surgeries.

The first time, June 9, for a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis of cancer, as well as to attach an external shunt to drain spinal fluid build-up in her brain.

And a second time, June 15, to implant an internal shunt she’ll likely have for years.

Eliza was released from the hospital June 18, and her parents took her home.

She is doing better; there is no more pressure on her optic nerves, and she can sleep through the night without her eyes swelling shut anymore. (That was the initial sign, a month ago, that something was very wrong.)

And though Eliza faces a long haul of tests and treatment, the Fortners have found reassurance from their spiritual beliefs.

“We have a very strong faith in God. God’s hand is in this,” Jessica said. “He loves her even more than we do — and that’s a lot.”

Lawrence residents Nathan and Jessica Fortner cuddle their 7-month-old daughter, Eliza Mae. The infant is regaining strength after two recent surgeries to diagnose and treat symptoms of a brain tumor.

Ministering to family

The Fortners aren’t going through this situation alone.

They have been offered plenty of support from their congregation, First Southern Baptist Church, 4300 W. Sixth St.

“We came home from the hospital (with Eliza) and the house was clean, they stocked our pantry, they mowed our lawn … It’s been overwhelming. There just aren’t words to express it,” said Jessica.

Nathan described the care they have received from the church as “tremendous.”

“We’ve had visits every day in the hospital (after Eliza’s surgeries), we have a prayer chain at the church, they’ve taken care of our house, cooking meals every night,” he said.

“They’ve also collected love offerings for us to help with medical bills. Every little bit helps.”

Eliza, diagnosed with a brain tumor on June 8, glances at a toy. She was released June 18 from Children's Mercy Hospital.

The Rev. James Bush, First Southern Baptist’s senior pastor, has watched his congregation reach out to the family.

“They seek to care this way about one another, and then certainly under these circumstances, they want to do all that they can to minister to the Fortners,” he said.

Churchgoers have realized that more will be needed here than simply passing the collection plate once or twice. The family has begun a long-term struggle, and the church has committed itself to assisting the Fortners.

“It’s going to be ongoing care for them, praying for them, and the members are responding to that,” Bush said.

Steed and Julie Bell, members of First Southern Baptist, have organized a garage sale today at their home as a fund-raiser for the family. Word has spread, among other members, to bring items to donate for the sale.

“I think the most important thing that we can all do for the Fortners and for Eliza is to pray for her, but in addition, we would like to help them with expenses and (preparing) meals, so that they can focus on Eliza,” Julie Bell said.

Years of tests, treatment

NATHAN FORTNER embraces his daughter, Eliza. She recently had surgery to implant a shunt in her brain to drain a build-up of spinal fluid.

The little girl, born Nov. 11 last year, is the first child for Nathan and Jessica.

Nathan came to Lawrence from St. Louis to attend Kansas University, where he earned a bachelor’s in accounting and business administration in 1996. He is an assistant manager at a Sherwin-Williams paint store in Overland Park.

Jessica, a Lawrence native, graduated from Lawrence High School in 1994. She earned her bachelor’s of music therapy at KU in 1999.

She splits her time working as a music therapist for both Lawrence public schools and the Americana Music Academy, 1419 Mass. At the academy, she works with people who have cognitive and physical delays.

The couple will have been married five years in September.

While Eliza recovers from her recent surgeries, her parents are seeking expert advice from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, as well as Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

Eliza soon will start chemotherapy to stop the growth of the tumor. When she is between 3 and 5, she will have radiation therapy, too.

The tumor can’t simply be removed through surgery; it’s wrapped around critical structures in the brain. Doctors have told the Fortners that only 10 to 15 percent of it could ever be taken out.

“Looking at the MRI (at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City) took our breath away. There are equal parts brain and tumor in that little head,” Jessica said.

The future is unknown for Eliza, but she’ll have to undergo years of tests and treatment.

Her parents, meanwhile, seemed to be doing well this past week. At their home, they were cheerful and clearly in love with their daughter.

“We had our initial shock when we heard (her diagnosis), but we’ve gotten over that. God’s going to take care of us,” Jessica said.

“We have good things to look forward to,” Nathan added.

Garage sale today

Steed and Julie Bell, First Southern Baptist Church members, will have a garage sale fund-raiser from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at their home, 1308 N. 1056 Road.

The proceeds of the sale will help pay medical expenses for Eliza Mae Fortner, the daughter of Nathan and Jessica Fortner, Lawrence. She has cancer.

Members of First Southern Baptist Church, 4300 W. Sixth St., as well as members of the Lawrence-area community, are invited to donate items to the sale.

For more information, call the church office at 843-8167.