FORT KENT, Maine — As far as her parents are concerned, Kearston Albert is a princess.
And like parents the world over, Michael and Sheri Albert are more than happy to join their little girl in games of imagination and make-believe.
But in August, tragedy abruptly pushed its way into the family’s life and the monsters they now face are all too real.
Kearston, who turns 4 in December, was diagnosed with a form of childhood leukemia a little more than two weeks ago, and since then the family has been on the fast track with tests, lab work, exams, consultations, surgery and treatments between Fort Kent and Bangor.
The ordeal began when Kearston came down with an infection in late August that did not respond well to antibiotics, her father said.
“After she was done with her medications, the fever came back and we took her to Dr. [George] Conover and that led to blood tests,” Michael Albert said. “And those tests led to a nightmare.”
Kearston was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is one of the more common forms of the childhood cancer but is still fairly rare in Maine.
“It was actually a blessing she had gotten sick,” her father said. “Her immune system was so weak — that was why she could not fight that infection — [but] that led to an early diagnosis.”
Within an hour of getting that call confirming the diagnosis, the Alberts took their youngest daughter to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, where her treatment began almost immediately.
“She had to be taken by ambulance right away,” Michael Albert said. “It was quite a shock.”
With three other children in the family — Robin, 13; Ian, 10; and Gavin, 5 — Sheri Albert knew she’d have to keep it together, no matter how hard that was.
“It’s been tough from the get-go,” she said. “If at 5 o’clock that morning when I got up someone would have told me my daughter would have leukemia before the day was over, I could not have taken it.”
What the Alberts have done, she said, is take it one day, one hour and even one minute at a time.
“When we got the news about the diagnosis I sat on the bed with Kearston and I said to her, ‘We are princesses, you and I, and we are going to go on an adventure and we will slay the dragon,’” Sheri Albert said, tearing up at the memory. “I knew from that moment on the two of us would be joined at the hip.”
The notion of playing “princess” with mommy and chasing dragons worked well for a few days, but the novelty soon wore off for Kearston as she continued to receive invasive treatment at EMMC.
“She was game for it for three or four days,” Sheri Albert said. “But one day when they were changing her IVs she looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to slay dragons anymore.’”
Kearston is looking at five weeks of chemotherapy, requiring the family to travel to EMMC once a week over that time, Michael Albert said.
None of it is particularly pleasant for a little girl, he said.
Surgeons installed a “portacath” in Kearston for the IV chemo injections and she has already had three blood transfusions. In addition, some of the drugs will be injected directly into her spinal column.
“You know, she’s taking the treatment pretty well,” Michael Albert said. “She’s not happy about it, but she’s doing it.”
Among the reactions to the treatment her parents were warned about are the mood swings associated with one of the steroids she is receiving.
“We were told that medication can lead to mood swings,” Michael Albert said. “At one moment she’s our little Kearston again, laughing and smiling, and the next minute she’s really irritable and cranky, [but] we are just rolling with the punches.”
It’s a tough balancing act, Sheri Albert said.
“Right now we want to give Kearston everything and anything she wants [and] we are waiting on her hand and foot,” she said. “But I have three other children and there are rules in this house.”
Those rules, pediatric staff and doctors at EMMC have told her, are out the window for the foreseeable future.
“They told us, ‘You have no rules now,’” Sheri Albert said. “We have a long, hard journey in front of us and we need to get her through it.”
Those steroids — or the “grumpy pill,” as Sheri Albert calls them — also are causing some interesting food cravings for her little girl.
“The other night she woke me up at like three in the morning for cheese,” she said. “And canned ravioli, that’s all she wants. Or turkey.”
The doctors told the family it does not matter what Kearston eats, just as long as she eats.
The Alberts can’t say enough about the staff at EMMC or in Fort Kent, calling them all “our angels.”
At EMMC, staffers presented Kearston with a special bag and her first “bead of courage.”
For each subsequent visit, treatment and procedure she is allowed to choose a special bead from the beads of courage selection at the hospital.
“It’s been two weeks and look how many she has already,” Sheri Albert said, emptying the bag onto her kitchen table. About 20 beads rolled out. “Two more years to go,” she added.
From members of the ambulance crew, who took a frightened Kearston and her equally scared mother to Bangor, to the nurses, doctors and social workers who met them at EMMC where Kearston was admitted for 10 days, Sheri Albert said there is no way the family could do this without them.
“They have been our blessings,” she said. “The only way we have gotten through this is those people and the prayers we are receiving from people at home.”
And now those same people are offering more than prayers as word of Kearston’s illness has spread.
“Team Kearston” is planning several fundraisers to help the family with expenses not covered by insurance, including prescription medications — which will run as high as $470 a month — travel to and from Bangor, and lodging in Bangor.
First up is a walkathon the group is holding this weekend in conjunction with the annual Fort Kent Scarecrow Festival and University of Maine at Fort Kent homecoming parade on Saturday with registration starting at 9:30 a.m. at the Fort Kent Elementary School.
There also is a 50/50 raffle, and local seamstress Jessica Tardif, who makes tutus for little girls, is donating a portion of her proceeds to the Alberts’ because, as she puts it, “every little girl deserves to be a princess.”
Saturday, Team Kearston will have a booth at the Scarecrow Festival’s Afternoon in the Park at Riverside Park.
Donations also are being accepted at Acadia Federal Credit Union, which has branches in Fort Kent, Madawaska, St. Francis and St. Agatha.
For their part, the Alberts are overwhelmed by the community response.
“It has really left us speechless and we are so grateful,” Sheri Albert said.
“Sheri would be the first one to go above and beyond for any of us,” said Candy Daigle, Team Kearston co-organizer. “She had called me the day she was taking Kearston to Bangor and right away I wanted to help.”
At the same time, Kathleen Voisine-Hafford had seen posts about the family’s situation on Facebook and knew she, too, had to be involved.
“I was just feeling so bad about what they were going through, so I had lunch with Candy [Daigle], Beth Barin and Sonya Charette-Bodo and we started planning to help,” Voisine-Hafford said. “It spread like wildfire and we’ve already gotten checks from around Maine, Connecticut and even Alabama from people we don’t even know.”
The group now has its own Facebook page.
Thanks to the prayers, support and medical treatments, the Alberts are optimistic about the future for Kearston.
“This form of leukemia has a very high success rate for treatment,” Sheri Albert said. “The doctors said it has a 95 percent cure rate.”
For now the family has to keep a close eye on Kearston’s white blood cell count and keep her away from any exposure to germs or infections. Bottles of sanitizing hand cleaner are placed around the house for guests to use.
“If she gets a fever over 101.4 we have to take her right to the hospital,” Sheri Albert said.
At the same time, they are happily planning Kearston’s first day at preschool, where staff have said they will do whatever is needed to make a safe and healthy environment for her.
“This has been such a humbling experience and we are so grateful to so many people,” Sheri Albert said. “And I can tell you one thing: I will never, ever take anything for granted again.”