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Six-year-old Poppy Sellier fights cancer with faith, family

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Day 236.

A small, 6-year-old girl wearing a Wonder Woman outfit stands on a stool at iNOVA Children’s Hospital in Fairfax and reaches for a bell just above her head. The bell signifies the remission of acute myeloid leukemia that Poppy Sellier has been dealing with since she was diagnosed Dec. 21, 2018.

She is surrounded and cheered on by family and friends who supported her and her family through the treatments with prayer and seven months of seven days of meals through a meal train.

It is the end of five cycles of chemotherapy that kept Poppy hospitalized for around 30 days at a time. Each 30 days took her immune system to zero and back until she could return home. Each return home meant playing with her sisters and brother, celebrating the milestone of one round with a cake and candle.

Aside from the peach fuzz on her head where hair is starting to return and the port that will remain inserted inside until her blood count reaches a certain level, Poppy seems like any rising first-grader.

“Now that I’m out of the hospital I feel really happy,” said the smiling Poppy, interacting with her sisters.

Flash back to Day 1.

It’s just before Christmas. Poppy’s mother, Charlotte, searching frustratingly for a last-minute gift, takes the temperature of Poppy who has been lethargic with flu-like symptoms for a while, finds no fever and sends Poppy to Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls.

The school called and said she had a fever of 101 degrees. By mid-afternoon, Poppy and Charlotte were at the emergency room, then admitted to the 10th floor at iNOVA, where Poppy didn’t come out for a month.

“You WebMD your life away and never think it’s going to be that bad,” said Charlotte. “The night she got the port put in and the doctor talked about when the port would come out, I couldn’t even believe someone was discussing it being over because it had just started. He did me such a favor he doesn’t even realize it.”

Though she was diagnosed a week before Christmas, “me and Dad got to meet Santa,” said Poppy. And she got the exact thing she wanted — a blue guitar.

When Charlotte thought of cancer treatment, her vision was of the television shows with people feeling really lousy and vomiting all the time. For Poppy, that was true during the first round of chemotherapy.

“She lost so much weight and had to get a feeding tube,” said Charlotte. “Childhood cancer prior to this for me was very abstract, it didn’t happen to me or anyone I knew. It suddenly became not abstract anymore and I think that’s how it became for our community of friends — everyone was so surprised by it — it got people going on the spiritual front.”

That spiritual front included people known and unknown to the Selliers offering spiritual bouquets, promises of novenas, rosaries and Masses. The Selliers, parishioners of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Great Falls, had first-class relics of Sts. Therese of Lisieux and Elizabeth Ann Seton with them in the hospital room. “It was a nice talking point,” said Charlotte. “We learned one of our doctors was Catholic by seeing the relic, and Poppy would kiss it before going off to a procedure.”

Poppy’s father, Joel, described keeping faith as a marathon.

“Obviously when it first started, being a devout family, we were never asking, ‘Why, God?’ Right out of the gate (we needed) to pray a lot, we needed to say the rosary, but it was almost difficult to maintain that,” he said. “It was hard to be that fervent for all of the six, seven months. Other people were incredible.”

Poppy even had a visit from Bishop Michael F. Burbidge who joined her for Legos, and Father Stefan P. Starzynski, Catholic chaplain at iNOVA Fairfax.

“I saw that their Catholic faith is the center of their lives, that they worked as a couple to support and help each other, therefore showing their faithfulness to their marriage,” said Father Starzynski. “They had to learn to surrender to God because there are days, in fact months, when that is all you can do.”

The second, third and fourth rounds of chemo were like a walk in the park, said Charlotte. Poppy was feeling good, got the feeding tube out because she started gaining weight, and she frequently visited the other cancer patients on the floor with a wagon full of toys for the children, and visiting the nurses’ station, earning the nickname of “mayor of the floor,” according to Joel.

“To be perpetually happy and still find ways to bring joy to other people even when you’re feeling so sick is like seeing the face of Christ through her actions and her kindness to people,” said Charlotte.  

When Poppy started her final round of chemo, she got an infection. The infection wasn’t surprising, but the timing was.

“One of the doctors said it’s not a matter of will she get an infection in the hospital, she will hit a rough patch — you’re going to get an infection when her immune system is zero,” said Joel. “But she also said, ‘I am very confident that this treatment will be successful.’ Just hearing that was enough to make us feel better.”

Charlotte said the infection reminded them of how quickly it can go south when it does. “They know exactly what to do, but it was surprising to us. It was like we were closing out the end just like the beginning — a lot of unknowns, a lot of hurry up and wait, a lot of doctors trying to figure out what kind of bacteria it was,” said Charlotte. “It was very reminiscent of the beginning, and I think for me and Poppy, there was PTSD involved in it. We had basically six months of nothing happening. She was sick for about 10 days.”

Joel and Charlotte speak at the diocesan conferences for the engaged and made an effort to continue to strengthen their marriage through this time of Poppy being treated for cancer.

“We do talks on communications and natural family planning,” said Joel. “It wasn’t always easy, and we leaned on our communications skills, but we felt even stronger for having gone through this. We were remarking what would it have been like if we didn’t have the marriage on solid footing.”

Charlotte said they made it a priority to get a sitter at the hospital one night a week so they could both be home with the other children, ages 1, 3 and 8.

Now that Poppy is done with chemotherapy, Charlotte said it is a relief.

“But I’d be lying if I said that I can relax,” she said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to feel super relaxed again. I just have to figure it out to become a new normal in our lives.” 

poppy bts

Eight-year-old Felicity Sellier (left) hugs her sister Poppy, 6, as they prepare for the first day of school Aug. 26. Poppy will now attend the first grade at Our Lady of Hope School in Potomac Falls. COURTESY CHARLOTTE SELLIER

As part of the “new normal,” the Selliers are expecting baby number five.

“I think it’s God’s classic parental redirection,” said Charlotte. “I’ve been so absorbed in this, so this is redirecting my energy.”

The Selliers relied on the support of family and friends throughout the treatments.

“(There were) a lot of beautiful moments where you don’t think of joy when you think of the hospital. You don’t think of hardship like this that can bring your family so much virtue,” said Charlotte. “There have been so many amazing memories created through this being so difficult, due in large part to our family and friends.”

This article was updated Aug. 28th. 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019