First grader faces illness with courage and faith
By Connie Berry
NORTH SYRACUSE — Brianna Belair likes cupcakes with strawberry frosting and purple sprinkles. She has a beautiful smile and she doesn’t hold anything back. Brianna, a first grader at St. Rose of Lima School, is still recovering from the surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy she went through in treating her medullablastoma, a malignant brain tumor. Brianna was diagnosed a few weeks after starting kindergarten in September of 2007. She’s back to school these days and said her two favorite subjects are “going to gym and recess.”
Brianna’s mom and dad, Ann and Brian Belair, were devastated with the diagnosis. They have a 20-year-old son Keith and Brianna who is 8. Ann said that Brianna had been sick frequently with vomiting and she and her husband took her to the doctor. At first the doctor thought it was acid reflux, then Brianna’s gait became crooked and then the doctor thought maybe she needed glasses so they took her for an eye exam. The opthomologist suspected something more than impaired vision and sent them back to the doctor and finally Brianna underwent an MRI.
“After the MRI they had Brianna play in a room with some toys and they took us in another room to tell us,” Ann remembered. “I was terrified. My husband wanted to know everything and did a lot of research. I could only handle a little information at a time.”
Ann’s three sisters were there for her and helped as much as possible as the family went through Brianna’s diagnosis, surgery and treatment. The ordeal would require every ounce of faith Ann could muster.
“Before this I’d say I believed in God, but my faith wasn’t that strong,” Ann said. “Now, I tell everyone they better believe in God because I know He’s there.”
The family spent a year staying most nights at University Hospital in Syracuse. Ann stayed at the hospital day and night sleeping there with her daughter and Brian spent weekends sleeping at the hospital. There were complications with infections that had to be overcome before treatment could take place.
Surgery was necessary to remove the tumor. The day Brianna underwent the surgery family and friends gathered to wait. Ann’s sister suggested that all the people there for Brianna should pray for the same thing at the same time: that God would send angels to take care of Brianna and that the tumor could be lifted and removed. The doctors had told them that it would be best if they found they could lift the tumor and it hadn’t connected with other surrounding tissue.
“We all prayed for the same thing,” Ann said.
Her family was gathered at her bedside when Brianna woke up after the surgery. It had been successful and the doctors were able to lift the tumor.
“She looked at us and said, ‘I want a heart bracelet,’” Ann said. “We asked ‘Why do you want one?’ And she told us, ‘Because the angels were wearing them.’”
Brianna told her family that angels were all around her while she was having surgery. She told them a man wearing a purple and brown robe was at the foot of her bed. The angels wore heart bracelets and they were “little angels,” Brianna’s size.
Brianna was determined and courageous throughout her ordeal, Ann said. Even when her hair was gone, Brianna rarely bothered with hats or scarves to cover up her baldness; she just went about the business of being a little girl. In fact, Brianna did a terrific job of comforting her mom when she was down.
“If I would cry or get sad Brianna would say, ‘Don’t worry Mom, Jesus is gonna save me,’” Ann remembered.
The faculty and staff at St. Rose of Lima School agree that Brianna is a special little girl. She has opened their hearts while they have watched her amazing progress.
Pat Gustafson, or “Mrs. G,” is the school nurse at St. Rose of Lima and she is amazed at Brianna’s recovery.
“I am absolutely amazed at her progress,” Gustafson said. “First she was in a wheelchair, then she pushed the wheelchair and then she could just hold your hand and now she walks independently.”
Gustafson helps Brianna with her homework after school. “She is such a delight. She’s a straightforward, honest young lady. She’s always willing to do homework and she loves working on crafts. She has great parents and they’ve been strong advocates for her.”
Ann said that the support they receive from everyone at St. Rose of Lima School has made a difference for her family. “Everyone here has been amazing. I’m really blessed to have this school,” Ann said. Brianna has a one-on-one teaching assistant who helps her throughout the day.
“She is so confident,” Ann said. “It is amazing how supportive the students are here and that has really helped Brianna’s confidence.”
Brianna’s red hair is growing back and her smiles come easily. Ann said that Brianna is extremely spiritual and that she prays when they are driving on their way to the MRIs that are scheduled every three months. So far, Brianna’s prayers have been answered.