Calif. Mom Opens Up After Learning Infant's Ear Infection Was Deadly Cancer: 'We Were Scared'
It’s been nearly a year since Jayshree Watkins, of Oceanside, California, lost her 11-month-old daughter Amelia to stage 4 neuroblastoma. But as spring marked the beginning of the family’s emotional ordeal, the pain is still very fresh for the mom of two.
Last April, Watkins, her husband John, Amelia, then 9 months, and their now-5-year-old son Kaden were preparing to move from Virginia to California. Just weeks before setting off on the cross-country trip to their new home, little Amelia came down with what they thought was a simple ear infection.
“Her fever got over 100 and that’s when we took her in and the doctor said she had an ear infection. I knew it’s a very typical thing for a kid to get,” Watkins, 30, tells PEOPLE, noting that the family decided to move forward with the long drive despite Amelia’s illness.
“We were moving so it was hard to see if she was getting better because we were constantly in the car,” she says. “We tried everything.”
As they drove, Watkins says, Amelia became increasingly fussy, appeared uncomfortable and would cry whenever her mother left her sight. Watkins says this was unusual, but she was not too concerned until they took the girl to a hospital in Texas, where a doctor said Amelia had a second ear infection.
“[The doctor] gave her a new round of antibiotics … and sent us on our way,” Watkins recalls. “I knew something was going on. Her fever was coming back and she was just so tired. She wasn’t eating or drinking, I was concerned about her being dehydrated.”
‘I Just Wanted Her to Be Okay’
When the family reached New Mexico, doctors there were puzzled. Some questioned whether Amelia had two ear infections, and others thought the baby had pneumonia. Concerned and confused, Watkins says she and her husband just wanted answers.
When they reached Phoenix at the end of May, doctors finally figured out what was wrong with the little girl: She had advanced stage 4 neuroblastoma.
“I said, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ I was mad. When you hear stage four, you know it’s not usually a good thing. In my heart I knew that something was wrong,” Watkins tells PEOPLE through tears. “All I wanted to do was make her better and fix it, but I couldn’t do that.”
Over the next few days, Amelia remained in the hospital, where doctors found a tumor on the baby’s kidney. The cancer had spread throughout her body. Watkins, who first shared her story with Love What Matters, was devastated.
“We were scared out of our pants. We thought we had a perfectly healthy baby,” Watkins says of herself and John. “I did everything that I was supposed to do when I was pregnant. I didn’t know if I did something wrong.”
She continues: “I was harboring a lot of guilt, thinking it was my fault. How did I not see this? How did I not find it? I just wanted her to be okay.”
Amelia underwent one round of chemotherapy and several blood and platelet transfusions. But doctors said the tumor was growing too quickly for any treatment to help.
“We couldn’t hold her. She couldn’t breathe on her own. The chemo was affecting her body in a negative way. She had to be placed on dialysis. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t do anything,” the grieving mother says.
“She didn’t look like herself. She started to go downhill a lot quicker after the chemo. The doctors came in and said, ‘There’s nothing else we can do. Her heart is shutting down.’ ”
Amelia passed away on June 6, 2017 — eight days after she was diagnosed, and just one month shy of her first birthday.
“It’s hard going on without one of my kids. Waking up without her, going to bed without her … it feels like half of me is missing. We had to do life and figure out how to do it without her,” Watkins says.
“It’s a lot quieter now, and I don’t like it. [Amelia] would talk all the time. She was so full of life and always happy. I think she was genuinely happy because she knew she didn’t have a lot of time with us.”
Now, the grieving parents are honoring Amelia, who they called Millie, through the Millie Mae Strong Organization, to raise awareness about childhood neuroblastoma and provide support to families impacted by the illness. The Watkins’ also work with the Childhood Neuroblastoma Cancer Foundation and other organizations to help fund pediatric cancer research.