A warm welcome home: Community, family elated over Philipsburg girl's return after battle with cancer

Emily Whitehead gets kisses from her dog Lucy as she arrives home to Philipsburg from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Friday, June 1, 2012.  Abby Drey
Emily Whitehead gets kisses from her dog Lucy as she arrives home to Philipsburg from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Friday, June 1, 2012. Abby Drey Centre Daily Times

PHILIPSBURG — Signs reading “We Believe” and “Welcome Home Emily” dotted front yards in Philipsburg on Friday as residents prepared for a homecoming. Business windows were painted, ribbons were hung, a fountain was dyed purple. And a little dog sat on a porch, patiently waiting for her best friend to come home.

By 4 p.m., South Centre Street was full of tears, cheers and supporters decked out in purple as a firetruck led Emily Whitehead and her parents through the town on her way home from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Emily, 7, has been in the hospital since March 1 — for 90 days — battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

She was the first child in the world to be treated with her own genetically engineered T cells, a procedure that may influence the way other cancer patients are treated in the future.

Today, she is cancer-free and has received an outpouring of support from the community, near and far.

After many goodbyes with friends made at the hospital, the family got on the road.

“It was exciting for us once we were in the car,” Tom Whitehead said during the 4-hour drive home. They began the trip listening to music before Emily took a nap.

“We couldn’t wait to get out the door today,” he said. “It’s a little scary for Em because they have the meds she needs.” But “it’s been so long since the three of us have been home together. We’re looking forward to that.”

Emily has a June appointment with Dr. James Powell, her oncologist in State College, and will return to Philadelphia in July to get her bone marrow checked.

“They asked us not to come back early,” Tom Whitehead said with a smile.

In Philipsburg, family friends Beverly Fahr and daughter Vanessa were two of many volunteers who spent the day hanging up purple ribbons around town.

“Emily’s been an inspiration for the entire town. For me, it just makes me proud to see how the community has come together,” Fahr said. “Tom and Kari sharing (their story) with the community ... we all just share the sense that we’ve all been part of it.”

Emily’s family gathered on the porch of her great-grandparents’ house, awaiting the family’s arrival.

“We didn’t think it would happen, did we?” said her grandmother, Sandy, as she looked over at Pat, Emily’s great-grandmother. But, “Tom never doubted for one minute that she’d be coming home,” Sandy added.

“I’ll tell you, I’m gonna cry,” Pat said.

Horns honked and the firetrucks’ sirens sounded. The parade paused as the Whitehead’s SUV slowly pulled up to the curb.

“I love you, Em,” said Sandy as she passed Emily’s dog, Lucy, through the vehicle window. Emily’s goal had been to make it home from the hospital for Lucy’s birthday today.

After a joyous greeting, the reunited family continued up the street to their final destination.

Back at Emily’s house, rain forced an impromptu gathering in the garage. Father, mother and daughter — once again at home together — huddled around the dog.

“Never felt so good to be home,” Tom Whitehead said.

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