One mom thought nothing of posting an image of her one-year-old daughter online. However, little did she know the picture would change her daughter’s life. That’s because, not long after the photo had been shared, a friend of hers noticed an ominous reflection in the little girl’s eye.
Madeleine Robb lives in Stretford, England, where she works as a business analyst. In 2007 Robb and her husband Doug were expecting a baby girl. So, to clue herself up on what to expect, the mom-to-be signed up to an online pregnancy chatroom called BabyFit.
It was on this site that Robb first made contact with Megan Santos from Florida. She too was expecting a baby. And when her little girl Rowan arrived on the same day as Robb’s daughter Lileth in August 2007, the pair struck up a special bond.
The two women regularly exchanged emails and photographs that documented their respective family’s lives. They continued their friendship this way for exactly a year. However, in August 2008, something happened that would change their relationship forever.
It all began when Santos posted a photograph of one-year-old Rowan online. At first glance, the image was just a candid snap of the little girl from her mother’s perspective. However, Robb noticed something about the picture that worried her.
In the image, Robb saw that little Rowan had a strange, white shadow covering her left eye. The mom had a feeling that she’d heard about similar symptoms somewhere before. And, as she racked her brains, she remembered the terrifying reason why they had stuck in her memory.
“I’d seen a news article here in the U.K. a few years ago, something similar, and it just sparked a memory of that,” Robb told Today in 2008. “Also, the word ‘cancer’ sprang to mind with the same memory. So obviously I was quite concerned and just decided to do more research.”
A thorough online search confirmed Robb’s worst fears. She discovered that a retinoblastoma – a tumor in the eye – could be responsible for the whiteness. Furthermore, if left untreated, the illness could spread to other parts of the body.
Concerned for Rowan, Robb wasted no time in contacting Santos. “I didn’t want to scare her,” she admitted. “But then I weighed out the options. If something wasn’t wrong, then no real harm was done. If something was wrong, I really had no option, so obviously I had to tell her.”
Following her contact with Robb, Santos made an urgent appointment with her doctor. The very next day Rowan went to see an ophthalmologist. Weeks of tests followed, until experts finally confirmed the child did indeed have a tumor on her retina.
Retinoblastoma is a rare kind of cancer which can occur in one or both eyes. It mainly affects young children and can even begin in the womb. Unfortunately, to stop the tumor from spreading any further, doctors would have to remove Rowan’s eye.
However, Santos and her family were all too aware that things could have turned out much worse for their daughter. And, for that, she will always be thankful for Robb’s intervention. “Grateful cannot even begin to describe how we feel toward Maddie,” Santos told the Daily Mail in 2008.
“Do I consider Madeleine our hero? Most certainly,” Santos added. “If she hadn’t sent that email, Rowan’s prognosis wouldn’t be as good as it is. One more week and the tumor could have hit her optic nerve.”
However, Robb was quick to refute Santos’ claims that she was a “hero.” She told Today, “I suppose if that’s how they feel, then that’s what I am to them. I think anybody in my situation would have done the same thing, if they had known what I knew and had the opportunity to say it.”
Despite her modesty, Robb’s story made international headlines. And thanks to the awareness it raised towards retinoblastoma, at least one life was saved. When Seamus McClafferty of Londonderry, Northern Ireland, noticed a similar marking in his daughter’s eye, he rushed her to a doctor. His daughter was subsequently diagnosed with cancer. If it wasn’t for the picture of Rowan, though, McClafferty might not have known to raise the alarm.
Thankfully, Rowan responded to chemotherapy well and, after doctors removed her eye, she made rapid strides towards recovery. A year after her diagnosis, her mom returned to BabyFit with an update on her baby’s condition.
“Well it has been a long, hard road, but we find ourselves on the other side of treatment now,” Santos wrote. “Rowan just got her first ‘all clear’ post chemotherapy and goes for her first MRI after enucleation this month. It has all been a whirlwind.”
“She is doing great! Every day she amazes me more and more,” the proud mom added. “Her hair has finally ceased falling out and I actually think more fuzz is growing. We are working on getting her to wear glasses to protect her good eye, but so far, she hates them.”
Santos also revealed that little Rowan had gotten used to her prosthetic eye. However, she said they were awaiting a new one, for which they had high hopes. This one would be custom-made for the little girl to better match her right eye.
With Rowan’s cancer behind them, Santos was looking forward to what the future may bring. “Her follow-up examinations will continue until she is seven or so,” she said. “But, with each all clear, we get more time between appointments. I can’t wait ’til it is only once or twice a year!”