I faked Christmas because our poorly girl might not live to see the real thing.
Baby Isabella faced emergency brain operation
THE tree sparkled in the corner and a pile of wrapped presents lay beneath.
As the turkey roasted in the oven, the kids pulled crackers and danced to carols.
But this was no ordinary Christmas. It was DECEMBER 18, 2011, a whole week before.
Mum Jolene Hale, 31, had gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure her children never guessed it was not yet Christmas.
She brought forward the big day after hearing the devastating news that daughter Isabella, now two, had a brain tumour and needed emergency surgery to remove it.
That meant she would spend the real Christmas Day recovering in hospital.
Fearing it could be the poorly tot’s last Christmas, Jolene pulled out all the stops to trick her daughters into thinking Christmas had come early — ensuring they both enjoyed the most magical of days.
Jolene says: “The last thing I wanted was for my girls to associate Christmas with hospital, pain and being upset.
“Despite being ill, I wanted Isabella to have a magical family Christmas. I’d move the world for her if I could, so moving Christmas was no problem.
“I was warned there was a chance it could be her last. There was no way she was going to miss out.
“The real Christmas Day came and went while Isabella was in hospital after her surgery — and we didn’t even mention it.
“As far as we were concerned, we had our Christmas as a family at home, when she was happy and well.”
Though the family is hoping for a real Christmas this year, Jolene has not ruled out having to move the big day again.
“At the moment we don’t know if Isabella will be in hospital having chemotherapy or not, but the girls had a fake Christmas last year and I would love to give them a real one this year.
“As long as we are together as a family it’s Christmas, whatever day of the year it really is.
“I’ve got the decorations and tree up ready and the turkey in the freezer, so I can hold Christmas at the drop of a hat if I need too.”
Jolene and partner Chris Coomber, 30, from Plumstead, southeast London, first grew concerned that something was wrong when Isabella still wasn’t pushing down on her legs in her walker at five months.
Jolene was worried Isabella was not developing as her sister Rebecca, now five, had. But doctors urged her not to worry.
“They told me all children develop at different rates and not to worry so much,” she says.
By the time Isabella was ten months old, Jolene was pregnant again with her third daughter.
She was desperately worried that Isabella couldn’t sit unaided.
Finally Isabella was referred to Royal Marsden Hospital for tests. As they waited for the appointment to arrive, Jolene prepared for Christmas as usual, shopping for gifts and food.
On December 16, Jolene and Chris took Isabella for a brain scan. They were told a 7cm tumour had been found. Isabella was just 14 months old.
Jolene says: “I began to shake and cry. I just could not believe this was happening to my baby.”
The tumour was not thought to be cancerous at that stage but it still needed removing right away.
Then the consultant warned that Isabella might not survive the op.
Jolene says: “I had been going to ask if Isabella would be home for Christmas, but now I was being told she might not come home at all.
“If she did pull through, she would spend all Christmas in hospital.
“I felt utterly helpless. There was nothing I could do to help my baby girl.
“I was five months pregnant and other families were getting ready to celebrate, while we were in hell.
“The only thing I could do was make sure Isabella and her sister didn’t miss out on the Christmas they deserved.
“They had been so looking forward to it, I didn’t want to tell them it had been cancelled or they would think they had done something wrong.
“I called the whole family and told them I was bringing Christmas forward to trick the girls.
“I set the new Christmas in two days’ time — giving us just 48 hours to prepare the best Christmas ever.”
As the girls had been counting down to Christmas on their advent calendars, Jolene had to get creative.
She told them Santa had been in touch to say he was bringing Christmas forward — as the girls had been so good.
Jolene says: “Rebecca started cheering and whooping. She was over the moon. That made Isabella start to laugh and smile.
“It was a beautiful moment amid the darkness. I knew I had done the right thing.”
The next day — with just 24 hours until the new “Christmas” — Jolene rushed out to buy last-minute seasonal supplies.
“Thankfully I had most things ready, so I just needed to finish off the stockings and buy a big box of crackers,” she explains.
On the fake Christmas Eve, the girls dressed in their matching red Disney Christmas pyjamas. Jolene told them to sleep tight because Santa was on his way.
The next morning Rebecca woke early. Soon after, guests started arriving for the day.
Jolene watched proudly as Isabella, helped by her big sister, tore open her gifts of dolls, soft toys and books.
Jolene says: “It was magical — but heartbreaking. I was smiling but in my head I was wondering, ‘Will this be the last time I see her open her Christmas presents?’ ”
Jolene vowed not to let her heartbreak ruin the day. She got on with cooking a huge dinner with all the trimmings.
“After dinner the girls played games and opened more toys before falling into bed exhausted. I was emotional but proud we’d pulled it off.
“The girls had enjoyed the best Christmas ever — and it wasn’t even Christmas.”
On December 21, three days later, Jolene and Chris took Isabella to King’s College Hospital. Despite an operation lasting eight hours, surgeons could remove only 80 per cent of the tumour.
The rest was wrapped around a blood vessel and it was too dangerous to remove.
Jolene says: “I was just overjoyed she had survived the operation. The relief was indescribable. I knew then we could fight anything else.”
The family spent the real Christmas Day at Isabella’s bedside. No one said what day it really was.
“I didn’t want to confuse the girls,” says Jolene. “The nurses were brilliant. They didn’t mention it either.”
Days later, medics confirmed Isabella’s tumour was a rare cancer for which there was a very low survival rate.
She required a year-long course of chemotherapy, which meant she lost the red hair that had earned her the nickname “little lion”.
“I always said it was her red hair that made her such a fighter, but even when it fell out, the spirit was still there,” says Jolene.
The worried mum gave birth to Sophia in March, after being induced between Isabella’s sessions of chemotherapy.
“Becoming a big sister gave Isabella a huge boost,” says Jolene.
“Her face would light up when I took Sophia to visit her in hospital.”
Isabella is now nearing the end of her chemotherapy, but scans show the tumour has not shrunk.
The family plan to raise funds for treatment in the US. The girls have asked Father Christmas for a trip to Disneyland Paris to meet their favourite characters.
Fundraisers hope to find £12,000 to help their dream come true.
Jolene says: “Isabella loves Donald Duck. For Christmas she asked for a cuddle from him.
“We are so grateful to the amazing family and friends we have working hard to make her dream come true.
“We will keep hoping, praying and fighting.
“Nobody knows what the future holds but we will always treasure the day Santa sprinkled Christmas magic on a little girl when she needed it most.”