Matt Wiginton walked toward the doors that would take him out of Mayo Clinic Hospital, Saint Marys Campus, for what he hoped was the last time. He held a bouquet of flowers and his wife's hand. The couple's 3-year-old daughter, Vada, walked in front of them in a sparkly dress, a unicorn headband resting where her blonde hair used to be.
As the family walked out into the crisp October air, Vada rang a bell signifying the end of 46 grueling rounds of chemotherapy. But the sound was drowned out by the cheers of the crowd gathered to celebrate Vada and watch her leave the hospital in a vehicle befitting a princess.
"She is a princess," Matt says. "And after all she's been through, I knew we couldn't just leave in our Subaru. I knew it had to be big. Life is simple and short — and I want it to be sweet."
Instead of a Subaru, Matt had arranged to have Vada whisked away from the hospital in what looked like Cinderella's carriage, horses and all.
"Seeing the look on Vada's face when she saw that was magical," Matt says. "Later in life, she'll always cherish the memory of that day."
Vada's journey to that carriage ride began when she was just a few months old. That's when her pediatrician at Olmsted Medical Center noticed one side of her body was a bit larger than the other and referred the couple to Mayo Clinic.
After numerous tests, ultrasound exams and bloodwork, William Shaughnessy, M.D., diagnosed Vada with hemihypertrophy, also known as hemihyperplasia. The condition is a risk factor for a rare type of kidney cancer called Wilms' tumor. Before she was two years old, Vada would receive that diagnosis as well.
"Vada had tumors on both kidneys," Matt says. "She was diagnosed with stage V cancer. We'd never heard of a stage V cancer. We were blown away."
Matt and his wife, Beth Timm, brought Vada to Mayo Clinic in Rochester for treatment. After 15 rounds of chemotherapy, scans showed Vada was cancer-free.
"She responded so well to those first rounds of chemotherapy," Matt says. "We were ecstatic."
Their joy was short-lived. Less than a year later, scans revealed a tumor on Vada's left kidney. Candace Granberg, M.D., a pediatric urologist, removed the tumor. Then, Vada began chemotherapy again. Which meant that instead of playdates and playgrounds, Vada's life once again revolved around trips to the hospital. It's not where Vada, or her parents, wanted to be.
"Vada hated being in the hospital," Matt says. "It's torture for an adult, let alone a kid."
So when it was time for Vada to leave the hospital, Matt wanted the departure to be special. And he wanted it to be meaningful to his "smart, witty" daughter, whose current passions fall into two categories. "She plays princess all the time and pretends she's a horse 10 times a day," Matt says.
Leaving the hospital in a horse-drawn carriage would be perfect, he decided.
But it wouldn't be easy.
"I called lots of places and told them Vada's story, and what I wanted to do, but hit a lot of dead ends," he says. Then, fittingly, Matt reached out to Cinderella Carriage. The owner offered her services for free.
Finally, Matt reached out to Mayo staff for help with the logistics of bringing a team of horses onto campus.
"I got an email at 7:38 a.m. on a Friday morning, and by 10 a.m., we had a group dedicated to making sure this happened," says Ken Ackerman, hospital administrator. "There's not an organization with a better collective heart than Mayo Clinic."
And so, on Thursday, Oct. 28, two black Percheron horses pulled a beautiful white carriage up to the doors at the Saint Marys Campus. There were cheers — and tears — all around as Vada and her parents climbed into the carriage that would carry them into their future.
It's a future that looks much different than the one Matt and Beth imagined when they first welcomed their daughter into the world.
"We are now a childhood cancer family," Matt says. "This is never going to end for us. We know too much about what these kids go through. There are a lot of kids that have it worse than Vada. When we left the hospital, there were children up on the floor who hadn't been home in months."
The family's experiences have turned them into advocates, Matt says. Advocates for things like increasing funding for childhood cancer research, which receives just 4% of federal cancer research funding. And advocates for improving the spaces and places where children receive care.
"We have it easier than most," Matt says. "Mayo Clinic is in our backyard."
Matt credits Mayo Clinic — and the support of family and friends — for "getting them through" Vada's diagnosis and treatment.
"The staff at Mayo treat us like humans, not just a number," Matt says. "And our family and friends have been amazing."
There's a whole kingdom of people, it seems, rooting for Princess Vada.
"When people meet her, she melts their hearts," Matt says. "She has smiled through most of this. If she had hair, you'd never know what she has gone through."
Editor's note: You can see Princess Vada's departure in a video by the Post-Bulletin.