Just two days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida on Willow Stine’s third birthday, the toddler’s family received heartbreaking news: Willow had leukemia and would need to be admitted to the hospital immediately for chemotherapy treatment.
As the hurricane roared in, Willow’s mother, Jennifer Stine, 39, quickly realized that she’d brought nothing with her to the hospital to celebrate Willow’s birthday that weekend. She didn’t have a cake, decorations or presents, and Willow’s dad, Shaun, and 4-year-old sister, Eden, were hunkered down at home in Wesley Chapel, Florida, 45 miles away.
“Friday was the scariest moment of my life, and the hurricane on Sunday only compounded it,” Jennifer tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t think that I could take much more. It was overwhelming.”
Besides worrying about Willow and her cancer diagnosis, she felt frantic being away from Shaun, a beekeeper, and Eden, wondering if they’d be safe in the storm. “And to pile on top of that, I had nothing for Willow’s birthday,” she says. “We’d rushed to the hospital with nothing but the clothes on our backs.”
She soon realized, though, that there was no need to worry about honoring her daughter on her special day.
Nurses at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg rallied to make Willow’s birthday a memorable one, even as their own homes were threatened by high winds and rising floodwaters.
After ordering a vanilla birthday cake from a local bakery, blowing up balloons and taping “Happy Birthday” decorations to the walls, nurses searched through an assortment of new toys donated to the hospital and found a bubble machine, Play-Doh, books, games and a doll to wrap up for Willow.
“Watching Willow open her gifts helped us to forget what a scary situation we were in (with the hurricane),” registered nurse Lindsay Jones, 36, tells PEOPLE. “Every time she opened something she said, ‘I’ve always wanted this,’ and that made us all laugh and smile. It was the perfect distraction to what was happening outside.”
Adds Kelly Boyd, 25, a child life specialist at the hospital: “They just found out they have a long road ahead of them, but at least she and her mom can remember this. If we can change even little moments throughout the day for a family, then that’s something rewarding and worth doing.”
At the party on Sunday afternoon, Willow beamed and laughed in a “Little Mermaid” nightgown as a dozen hospital staffers presented her with a vanilla cake and sang “Happy Birthday.” Jennifer softly wept, grateful for the nurses’ comforting intervention while rain and wind pounded the windows outside.
“It was such a stressful time for everyone with that hurricane bearing down — you could feel a sense of urgency in the halls,” she tells PEOPLE. “But the nurses put all of that aside and went all out to give Willow a birthday party. It’s so touching that they go above and beyond what they have to do on a child’s birthday or any day.”
It was only a few weeks ago that Jennifer noticed that Willow seemed more tired than usual and had become unusually pale. She thought her daughter might have a caught a stomach bug at first, but blood work ordered by Willow’s pediatrician revealed that the toddler had acute lymphocytic leukemia.
“It’s the scariest, most shocking news any parent can receive,” says Jennifer, “but you know you have to be strong for your child.”
Willow started chemotherapy this week and will likely need treatments for the next two-and-a-half years, says her mom.
“Right now, she’s in good spirits, enjoying using a toy stethoscope to listen to her dolls’ and stuffed animals’ hearts,” Jennifer tells PEOPLE. “Our lives have been completely changed, but we have a lot of hope, and part of that is because of the amazing people who took the time to brighten my daughter’s time in the hospital.
“Their kindness and compassion will never be forgotten.”