A day's reprieve for young patients

Doctors and nurses at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City work hard to treat their patients, but are determined to maintain a family atmosphere

18/02/2010 - Abu Dhabi, UAE - Sumeia Bouhida, and her daughter, Sara, 5, who has cancer, attended International Childhood Cancer Day at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi on Thursday February 18, 2010.      (Andrew Henderson / The National)
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ABU DHABI // When three-year-old Sara Bouhida had a high temperature and stomach pains, her parents thought that it was a common childhood ailment. It was only when her condition deteriorated, and they had to make a late-night trip to the emergency department at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, that Sumeia and Hassan Bouhida found out that their daughter had cancer.

Doctors diagnosed leukaemia in Sara in February 2008. Now five, she has endured two years of chemotherapy at the capital's largest public hospital. More than 400 children are receiving treatment, or have been treated, at the hospital. The staff work hard to make it more of a family environment than a clinical one. To mark International Childhood Cancer Day yesterday, the hospital hosted a party for its young patients and their families.

Face-painting, drawing, arts and crafts, and a special dance performance were organised for more than 30 of the ward's patients. They were also given gifts by staff. Mrs Bouhida, from Libya, was one of the guests. "I am very proud of my girl," she said. "The doctors and nurses here are so good. They understand all your worries and will help with anything they can." It was reassuring to meet families going through the same thing with their children. "Seeing children who have finished their treatment helps us a lot," she said. "These are all normal little children and they are treated very well here."

Cancer is still a relatively taboo topic in the Arab world. Indeed, Mrs Bouhida did not know that it could affect children before Sara fell ill. "I hadn't heard before that children had cancer but now I see two or three new children come here every week," she said. "Cancer is not something to be ashamed about and events like this show people how proud we are." Sara's sister Selima, eight, is a familiar face at the hospital. "They are very good, it is hard for children to understand but the nurses and doctors help all of us," Mrs Bouhida said.

Doctors say Sara faces six more months of chemotherapy. She has recently started attending the British School-Al Khubairat in between her monthly sessions. "She is a normal little girl," her mother said. The hospital's paediatric oncology unit has 13 in-patient beds and a 10-bed day unit. According to the central cancer registry, based at Tawam Hospital in Al Ain, leukaemia and brain cancer are the most common childhood cancers in the UAE.

Dr Azzam Alzoebie, senior consultant and head of the paediatric haematology and oncology programme, said the unit followed about 420 former patients, from one month to 15 years old. Another mother at yesterday's event, who did not want to be named, said it was "very tough" to cope with a child who had cancer. The hospital's staff provided invaluable support, she added. "My daughter doesn't understand very much about it, but she loves coming here, she sees it as a day out," the mother said. Her four-year-old girl has a brain tumour and receives treatment on a six-month cycle. "She thinks she is getting vitamins put into her body, she is too young to understand."

Support from the hospital staff was not simply a benefit, but a necessity, the woman said. "Sometimes family do not understand, they just think 'poor girl'. Here the staff understand everything we are all feeling." Dr Alzoebie said part of the hospital's role in the community was to raise awareness of childhood cancer. According to the International Confederation of Childhood Cancer Parent Organisation, up to 100,000 children die each year because they do not have access to the right services.

With the right treatment, between 75 and 80 per cent of patients would survive, it says. International Childhood Cancer Day, an annual event, has been marked at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City for the past five years. "Our objective for participating is to promote the importance of early diagnosis of all different types of cancer and getting the right treatment," said Dr Tej Maini, the hospital's chief executive.

The hospital was committed to educating not only the patients "but also the community on disease control and prevention", he said. Saeed al Ali, 36, travels to the hospital from Umm al Qaiwain with his nine-year-old son, who has leukaemia. The boy faces nearly two more years of treatment before life can return to normal. After his first round of treatment in Bangkok, the family decided to travel back and forth to Abu Dhabi.

"The nurses and doctors are available all the time on the phone to answer any questions we have," said Mr al Ali, an administrator. "My son is a very normal boy who loves cycling, football and his laptop. He comes here every 28 days, and everyone is very good to him." munderwood@thenational.ae