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Medical breakthrough, countless kindnesses turn tragic diagnosis into joy

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PEPPERELL — In 2006, the last thing two-year-old Charlotte O’Shea’s parents expected to see was their child’s image gracing posters in Stop & Shop Supermarkets.

Charlotte is one of five poster children for the food chain’s “Triple Winner” Brain Tumor Clinic program.

But then, Janet and James O’Shea never expected Charlotte would be diagnosed with a fist-sized, aggressively malignant brain tumor. Unlike her less tolerant fraternal twin brother, Will, she had never displayed outward signs of discomfort.

Charlotte is home with her family now, due to the use of a recently discovered 10-drug chemotherapy treatment. And, says Janet, the skill of her doctors, surgeon Dr. Edward Smith of Children’s Hospital and cancer specialist Dr. Mark Kiernan of the Dana Farber Cancer Center.

Now nearly three, Charlotte exhibits little effect from her traumatic surgery, except for the hand-knitted hat she wears to cover her bald and scarred head. And, visitors and occupants of the home must be decontaminated upon entry because the drugs have erased her immune system.

Charlotte has just completed 30 radiation sessions over six weeks. She spends three to five days as an in-patient at Dana Farber every three weeks and is in Boston two to five days a week.

Janet, a school psychologist with the Sudbury School District, has left her job to care for her daughter. Not so, her husband.

“He gets to go to work every day,” Janet said, her smile tinged with a little envy for the simplicity of work. Jim O’Shea, former North Middlesex Regional High School (NMRHS) principal, now holds that position at The Bromfield School in Harvard.

Residents of West Street for the past eight years, the O’Sheas are parents of two sets of twins. Their other children are Katherine and James, 9. Janet is a native of Acton. Jim is from East Boston.

Among new friends is the Marinilli family of Shirley Street, whose daughter, Connie, is a cancer survivor. She, too, was a poster child, two years ago. Connie is doing well, Janet reported.

“I get the chance to try to thank the amazing people of Pepperell and Townsend for all their help and good wishes,” Janet said. “People have been cooking dinner for us since last April, mowing the lawn, taking trash to the dump. A quilter’s guild made Charlotte a hand-stitched quilt. Neighbors entertain the O’Shea children when Janet’s parents cannot. The knitted hat is also a gift.

“Jim has a public job and the people at the schools, North Middlesex and Bromfield, have been terrific,” said Janet. “Students at NMRHS ran a charity car wash, the National Honor Society did a pancake breakfast. People have been giving us gas cards. And kudos to Harvard Pilgrim Health Group. We have a million co-payments but they have paid most of the expense.”

Marathon runner and former Pepperell resident Suzanne Carpenter and her husband (a lung cancer survivor) are running to benefit Charlotte. When Carpenter and her sister ran the Falmouth Road Race last summer for Children’s Hospital, they met a Los Angeles runner and Comedy Central TV show attorney who has since made Charlotte his patient patron for his charitable runs.

“Charlotte will be three in April, going on 33,” Janet said. “But, through the attorney, she is now connected with “Dora, the Explorer” and “Sponge Bob.” He sends her DVDs.”

A difficult road

A year ago, Charlotte began intermittent morning vomiting. Tests showed nothing wrong.

When Janet compared pictures of her children, she noticed that one of Charlotte’s eyes was drooping. More tests showed nothing.

The child began to vomit frequently and was taken to the emergency room. Her symptoms matched those of a brain tumor, according to what Janet had read on the Internet.

Finally, a CAT scan revealed a tumor the size of a hamburger bun inside Charlotte’s head. It took up 30 percent of her cranial capacity.

“She was in a lot of pain but we didn’t know it,” Janet O’Shea said.

“She was a bit cranky but she is more or less pain resistant,” said Janet. “I was completely panicked. We were horrified. But I just knew, and so did Jim, that she’d be fine”

An hour-long talk with Dr. Smith resulted in a decision to remove the tumor. A section of Charlotte’s skull was cut away and, eight hours later, Smith reported the bone was re-fastened and the little girl was stabilized.

Smith said he wasn’t sure all of the tumor was gone because it was close to the brain’s main ventricle, Janet said.

“The tumor was so malignant there was a 100 percent chance it would grow back without chemo,” she said. “We were told the surgery was only the beginning. That’s so true.”

Janet said her daughter’s stuffed dog, Lady, has been carried with her through every procedure. The toy was being carried around the house the day of the interview. The family’s golden retriever is also named Lady.

“There is a standing rule at Dana Farber, Lady stays,” said Janet’s father, Frank Larkin.

On request, Charlotte will share Lady’s fuzzy appeal, but only briefly.

“We’ve done pretty well with staying out of the hospital,” Janet said. “Charlotte isn’t at all listless as we were told she might be.

“Inside, I feel good for her,” Janet said. “Chemo can make you unstable and her’s is a new type, but she runs around. We’re happy. This is a happy story.”

She said Dr. Kiernan is head of the Dana Farber brain tumor clinic. He is bringing his findings to patients across the country whose families have been told there is nothing that can be done. He is conducting a national study.

“It’s so important to thank all the people. So many have done so much and I wouldn’t know who they are,” Janet said.

“Families with different situations have called or know Jim,” she said. “Sudbury has been terrific. Charlotte’s story has made the pages of the Metro, the newspaper for subway readers. We were guests at the Langhan Hotel, of Disney On Ice. Charlotte was at their tea party.”

A squeal emanated from the hallway and Charlotte, cradling Lady, steamed around the corner to be swept into her mother’s arms. The knitted hat was pulled halfway down her forehead. Underneath it, her smile lit up the kitchen.

“Charlotte is in Make-a-Wish,” Janet said. “There’s something about meeting Cinderella …”

“And see a parade!” the child beamed.

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