A mother-to-be’s devastating diagnosis: leukemia
“I’m excited to be a daddy,” says Eric Scott, who played red-haired son Ben on the CBS series The Waltons (1972—81). But in his voice, at this moment, there is far more sadness than excitement. Scott, 34, now a marketing vice president with Chase Couriers in North Hollywood, is the father of 3-month-old Ashley Elizabeth. But he is also a widower. His wife, Theresa, died Nov. 5 at age 33, two days after giving birth to their daughter. Eight months into her pregnancy, Theresa, a nurse, was found to have acute myelomonocytic leukemia, a particularly virulent, rapid form of the disease that sends white-blood-cell production into overdrive, producing toxins that attack the lungs and other organs. Of patients with this type of leukemia, only 10 percent are alive at the end of five years.
Eric Scott first met Theresa Fargo in 1975 at El Camino High in Los Angeles, but they didn’t date until they became reacquainted at a party in 1987. By then, he was ready for happiness: Post-Waltons, he had endured the sort of emotional and career setbacks typical of former child stars, and a brief first marriage (to an actress) lasted only a year. He and Theresa married on Sept. 9, 1989.
Recently, only weeks after Theresa’s funeral, Scott, still numb with grief, sat in the living room of his three-bedroom home in Moorpark. Calif., and talked to special correspondent Doris Bacon about the death of Theresa—and the birth of Ashley Elizabeth.
IF YOU FIND THE RIGHT PERSON IT doesn’t matter what you do together. I was attracted by Theresa’s sense of humor. We could laugh for hours together. And she had a great sense of loving and nurturing. She cared about her patients, and they cared about her. When they learned she was expecting a baby, the began giving her little gifts—hand-knitted booties.
We wanted three children, two years apart. A boy and a girl first. The third could be either. We planned to start a family right away, so we were thrilled with Theresa’s pregnancy—the joy of finding out, the visits to the doctor. They did an ultrasound after the first two months, and it was incredible. All you could see at that point was the little heartbeat. We picked out the name, Ashley Elizabeth, because we knew it was a girl beforehand.
Everything was wonderful. We took a child-birthing class. We decorated the nursery together. I put up the wallpaper, and we bought a white crib and hung a little musical carousel above it.
Theresa didn’t have any health problems. She took the normal vitamins and went to the doctor regularly. Her due date was between Dec. 1 and 7. But when she was about seven months along, she developed a rash on her chest. The doctor gave her some ointments. The rash persisted, but we didn’t think anything of it. We’d read that this was a common ailment in pregnancy. Afterward, though, I learned that this might have been a warning. She also had trouble breathing one week, but we thought the baby might be pressing on her diaphragm—another common problem of pregnancy.
On Friday, Oct. 30, when we were 35 weeks along, Theresa woke up and said she wasn’t feeling well—she had an earache. We got some medicine for that, but over the weekend she felt worse: coughing, aching, extreme fatigue. By Monday, she was feeling terrible. The doctor examined her and wasn’t happy with the congestion he was hearing, so he told her to go to nearby Los Rubles Hospital for some blood tests. Thai’s when our lives changed.
We got to the hospital at 5:30 on the afternoon of Monday, Nov. 2. Three hours later the results came back. Theresa had acute myelomonocytic leukemia. Her bone marrow was also affected.
My first reaction was, I have a very sick wife and we’re going to get through this. Neither of us thought she wouldn’t recover. No one ever told me this would be a fatal illness. I was just told that Theresa would be in the hospital for four weeks. Even when they put her on a respirator, they told us to regard it as we would a east on a leg, a temporary aid to assist her in breathing.
The doctors said the disease wouldn’t cross the placenta into the baby’s bloodstream—that was one of our concerns right away. And the pregnancy itself had nothing to do with causing the leukemia, although the doctors think she did develop it while pregnant, four to six weeks before it was discovered. The doctors said it is very, very rare for a pregnant woman to have AML.
What we were faced with was starling chemotherapy right away, for seven to nine days, with a bone-marrow transplant being a necessary part of the treatment. Fortunately, Theresa was the youngest of three brothers and a sister whose blood type might match.
At first we thought we could do the chemo and, we hoped, the baby would make it through to the end of the term. But the tests that were coming back gave us the feeling the doctors would have to be more aggressive with the chemo, which would have hurt the fetus. So they took our baby from Theresa by cesarean section on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 6:30 in the evening, one month prematurely. Our families were there with us: Theresa’s parents, her sister and two of her brothers, my mother and stepfather, my brother Alan.
Theresa came out of the surgery with flying colors. Six hours later, she started chemo. The next day was wonderful, until about 4 in the afternoon. At that point, Theresa started to decline. She was weaker, less alert. I was so depressed and anxious. The doctors had told me she would be very ill, but I didn’t think she would get as low as this.
By 9 o’clock Thursday morning the doctors told us it didn’t look like they could save her. She was conscious but couldn’t speak because she was on a respirator. She definitely knew I was there. She wanted to see the baby—it was only then that I realized she understood how sick she was. She died at 10:40 a.m.
She never got to see the baby. I had shown her pictures, but those were all she saw.
I couldn’t believe she was gone. I was in shock. I was overwhelmed. I cried.
We buried Theresa on Monday, Nov. 9, at a cemetery not far from our home. Ashley and I moved in with Theresa’s parents, Bettye and Chuck Fargo, for the first couple of months. Theresa’s aunt Jean Johnson came down from Montana and joined us the Saturday after Theresa died. We’re moving back into my house this month, and Jean is committed to staying with the baby until May. Then maybe I’ll work out an arrangement with another relative. I’ve started back at work part-time.
Ashley is doing just fine. She was 5 lbs. 5 ozs. when she was born, and now she’s up to about 8 lbs. 8 ozs. We’d hoped she’d be a strawberry blonde, because I’m a redhead, and the mass of dark hair she was born with is beginning to lighten. Her eyelashes are turning red. I gave her her first bath, and it all seems to be coming pretty naturally. I’ll be the best daddy in the whole world.
I tap into whatever support I can find. I’ve talked with anyone who will help me deal with this. Since Theresa was Catholic and I’m Jewish, I’ve talked with priests and rabbis as well as counselors. And I’ve joined two self-help bereavement groups, one at a synagogue and another at a church. I pick up comfort from each of them. Talking it out, listening to others who’ve been through similar experiences—it all helps.
Friends set up an education fund for Ashley, and that’s comforting. [Contributions may be made to the Ashley Elizabeth Scott Trust, c/o: Shiney, Fargo & Salcedo, 15315 Magnolia Boulevard, #128, Sherman Oaks, Calif. 91403.] I’ve heard from all the members of The Waltons. All the ones who were in town came to the funeral—Michael Learned [Olivia, the mother], Jon Walmsley [Jason], Mary McDonough [Erin], David Harper [Jim-Bob] and Mary Jackson [neighbor Emily Baldwin].
Now that the shock of Theresa’s death has worn off, it seems the pain is even greater. At first, you have stabbings in your heart 24 hours a day. Now it comes in waves, then goes away. But the bottom line is, Theresa is gone. I don’t have the person I talked to every night, who made me feel so good to wake up the next morning.
But I’ve got a little baby who looks at me and I’m reminded of Theresa. I hope Ashley looks like her. I want the baby to have as much of Theresa in her as possible. And I think she will.