Cadia Wiseman twirled in the middle of Meijer, swinging her bouquet of roses like a baton, as she waited to meet her hero: star chef Ree Drummond.
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down on her toes.
A celebrity chef might seem like an unlikely choice of hero for an 11-year-old leukemia warrior who readily admits she’s a picky eater.
What’s even more remarkable is how Cadia became a fan. She began watching Drummond’s Food Network show, The Pioneer Woman, during a long hospital stay, in which she went months unable to eat or drink.
Even though not a morsel of food could pass her lips, Cadia watched with fascination as Drummond baked, brined, grilled and roasted a mouth-watering array of appetizers, pastas, steaks, soups and desserts.
Her twin sister, Carmen, often watched with her. Together, they tried to describe what made Drummond so special in their eyes.
“She’s sweet,” Carmen said.
“And calm,” Cadia said. “And a bit funny. She just cooks a lot, a lot, a lot, a lot.”
Cadia has reached many big milestones in her battle against leukemia, but this one―meeting Drummond―was especially sweet.
She has come a long way since August 2016, when her parents took her to the doctor to check out her knee and leg pain. Blood tests revealed she had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
She began receiving chemotherapy at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Her cancer journey became even more difficult when she developed severe pancreatitis.
She spent four months in the hospital last year, from Labor Day through Christmas. And then she returned for surgery on her pancreas in February 2017 and stayed another month.
For a total of five months, Cadia received all her nourishment through a feeding tube.
Right now, I’m speechless.
As she lay for weeks in a hospital, she became a cooking show foodie.
“For some reason, all she wanted to do was watch the Food Network,” said Cadia’s mother, Lisa Villarreal Wiseman.
Maybe Cadia just missed eating, and TV chefs helped connect her to food, she guessed.
Of all the shows she watched, Cadia liked The Pioneer Woman best. She enjoyed learning about Drummond’s life with her husband and four children on a sprawling Oklahoma ranch. And she liked the recipes.
“She’s a picky eater, and Ree (Drummond) makes a lot of comfort food that she wouldn’t mind eating,” Wiseman said.
And Cadia is slowly starting to try a few new foods. As she described tasting her aunt’s meatloaf, she spoke with the relish of a food writer.
“Her meatloaf is the bomb,” she said. “There’s this glaze that goes on top of it, with barbeque sauce and ketchup and brown sugar all mixed together. Mmm!”
A child of courage
Cadia’s strength and spirit impressed the staff at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said Jessica Foley, MD, her pediatric oncologist. Cadia became an ambassador of sorts on the inpatient floor, reaching out to other children going through tough times.
“She has had a long and difficult journey and it is truly inspiring to see how far she has come and how well she is doing,” Dr. Foley said.
“All of us in clinic―physicians, nurses, social workers, advanced-practice providers, and Child Life specialists―absolutely love watching Cadia grow and thrive. Whether she is running around our clinic, doing Child Life projects, or giving me some of her famous sass, she is a reminder to all of us what tremendous strength, courage and determination one child can possess.”
Now in remission, Cadia takes maintenance chemotherapy and visits the pediatric oncology clinic at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital once a month. She returned to school this fall. She and Carmen are sixth-graders at Wyoming Intermediate School.
“She’s doing fantastic,” Wiseman said.
Wiseman began to arrange the meeting with Cadia’s favorite chef when she learned Drummond planned to visit the Cascade Meijer store on her Come and Get It cookbook tour. She contacted Drummond’s staff to see if they needed tickets for the book signing.
Instead, the staff said Cadia would get VIP treatment.
Meeting her hero
As Cadia and Carmen waited near Drummond’s signing table, they heard a cheer from the line of waiting fans. Cadia’s eyes lit up.
And then Drummond appeared. She greeted the girls with a big smile.
“I’m so glad to meet you. I’ve heard so much about you,” she said. “I’m Ree, by the way.”
The girls laughed. They had recognized the slender, red-haired woman they watched in countless shows.
They presented her with two bouquets of tie-dyed roses. And Drummond signed the family’s books―two cookbooks and two copies of the picture book, “Little Ree.” And she gave the girls warm hugs.
“You guys are the first people I’ve met in Michigan,” she said. “That’s a treat. You are my first Michiganders.”
After a goodbye hug, Cadia rushed over to Holly Workman, RN, a nurse navigator from Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital who was in line for the book signing. Eyes shining and with a big smile, Cadia opened each book to show off the autograph.
“Oh, you guys, it’s so cool,” Workman said.
What did they think of their meeting with Drummond?
“It was fun,” Carmen said.
Cadia beamed. “I was kind of shocked,” she said. “Right now, I’m speechless.”