Samaritan Hospice

Malachi's Story

Helping a loved one through the final phases of a serious illness is never easy. It can be especially overwhelming, however, when the loved one is a beloved toddler. Samaritan Hospice, a United Way agency, helped one Gloucester County mom through this most difficult experience. 

What started as a bulging and "turning in" in her two-year-old's left eye, ended up as every parent's nightmare for Shannon Dale of Washington Twp. Her toddler, Malachi Wyche, was diagnosed on January 10, 2002 with a very rare and disfiguring cancer while visiting his dad Chris Wyche in Vermont. "Rhabdomyosarcoma - a rare cancer of the soft tissue“ often affects children in the head and neck," explained Shannon. "Malachi's tumors grew in his mouth and eye to the point where it was hard for him to even speak or swallow at the end because the tumors got in the way." 

The young family endured a rollercoaster of emotions as young Malachi underwent nine months of chemotherapy. Hope soared with a remission in July 2002, only to be crushed as the cancer resurfaced on October 30. The family sought out three alternative therapies through The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. It was there, through CHOP's Coordinator of Palliative Care Gina Santucci, they learned that Samaritan Hospice could offer services to young children like Malachi and their families.  

Specializing in physical, emotional and spiritual comfort care at the end-of-life, Samaritan's experienced and caring staff help families keep their loved ones comfortable and at home during the last six months of a progressive illness. The organization also works with family members before and after the loss of a loved one to cope with their bereavement. 

Gina Santucci of CHOP said, "Malachi was the first patient we had ever referred to Samaritan Hospice and I checked up frequently. Malachi was such a bright, happy, playful little boy with a wry sense of humor. We all loved taking care of him and wanted to be sure his care at Samaritan measured up. Samaritan really stepped up to the plate. His primary nurse Colleen Howard was always available to answer my many questions and she helped the family navigate through some tough decisions." 

Colleen, along with Samaritan team members Karen Smith, a social worker, worked with the family in April and May 2003 for the last three weeks of Malachi's life. Colleen worked on regulating Malachi's medications to control bleeding and seizures and keep him as pain-free as possible.  Meanwhile, Karen counseled Shannon and Chris as well as Malachi's five-year-old brother Elijah, and Shelby, a young cousin in whose home the family was staying. "He was a beautiful child," said Colleen. "He was very smart, and loved to dance. He never complained, never cried." 

The comfort Samaritan offered came in many forms, explained Shannon.  "I had never been schooled in how to talk about death to young children - about what happens during the death process and after. Samaritan helped me do this."  In fact, Karen recommended the last book I read to Malachi called The Next Place." These discussions about "what happens next" led to several profound conversations with then-three-year-old Malachi. "Was Heaven like Disney World?" he asked his mom, after one such discussion. When she answered yes, he replied, "But you won't be there to hold me." 

Shannon, who has since moved to live near her family in upstate New York, maintains contact with her Samaritan team as she copes with her tragic loss. She takes comfort in her memories of Malachi's final moments, "He had been babbling - almost speaking in tongues - due to the obstruction of the tumor in his mouth. But then he woke up and asked for a hug and kiss and pointed upwards toward the ceiling (and Heaven). He died several hours later. I remember praying that he would not have to suffer for much longer. My prayers were answered." 

Gina Santucci of CHOP wrote, "Working with children and families as they struggle with end-of-life decisions is difficult for all involved, but working with Colleen of Samaritan made this a special experience."

Samaritan Hospice, the preeminent regional leader in hospice care, grief support, end-of-life education and research, is a non-profit, non-sectarian agency serving Burlington, Camden, Gloucester, and Mercer Counties. 

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