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'Blessed to have each other'
Ella Wells, 4, climbs on the couch while playing with her sister in the living room of their home in Belleville. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
BELLEVILLE - High-pitched children's voices permeate the first floor of the Wells' house in Belleville, accented with frequent laughter. The energy that pours from four-year-old Ella is not what one might expect in a cancer patient.

When Ella first started experiencing leg and hip pain in 2013, her parents Annie and Jared Wells took her to the emergency room late one night. The doctors performed several tests, letting computers analyze her blood work since the pathologist wasn't working that late. They sent Ella home after finding nothing, thinking her pain was caused by constipation.

Annie received a phone call the next morning from the doctor who had seen Ella: the pathologist had looked at her labs and found something.

Ella was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia on Aug. 23, 2013. According to Jared, there are only around 2,900 cases of it in the U.S.

"I think it was probably the last thing that was on my radar," Annie said. "Because you go to the ER and you think, well, maybe it's appendicitis, you know, maybe there's some weird thing."

Since then, Ella started a two-and-a-half year chemotherapy program, with treatment broken up into sections of varying lengths and intensities. According to Annie, the first several months are more intense.

In about a month and a half, Ella is expected to enter a phase of less intense chemo called "maintenance," which she'll continue for the next two years, Annie said.

"They hit her really hard with some pretty nasty combination of drugs," Jared said, referring to the earlier phases that "knocked out" the usually-energetic Ella.

"It's a difficult journey to go through, especially with a child," Jared said. "As a parent, you want to protect your children and really, you can't. I mean, there's not much you can do."

Her current treatment is lighter, but the Wells family still has to be careful about exposing her to viruses. If she gets a fever, they have to bring her to the ER, sometimes leading to several days of hospitalization. Jared said they've had to bring her in seven or eight times, and she's been hospitalized twice since the initial diagnosis.

"It's very difficult to deal with all the, you know, diagnosis of leukemia and just everything that goes with that," Jared said. "She's got a pretty good prognosis, but there's always that chance that the treatment might not work and that's kind of tough in the back of your head sometimes."

Annie described the experience as a "roller coaster of emotions."

"You get the initial diagnosis and then it feels like the world kind of stops turning," she said. "And then you kind of get okay, and then, you know, it's like all of a sudden, there's this or - different things pop up."

But according to Annie, Ella has done well for a child with leukemia. Ella watches what her parents do to treat her, Jared said, and reminds them when they've forgotten something. He credits her relative health with Annie's ability to stay home with her and her siblings, Sophia, 4, and Jackson, 1, during the day.

Annie said they worried about Ella losing her hair from the chemo, so they shaved Jared's head with Ella's help. Ella went next, and after a day she liked it.

With everything they have to deal with, they're grateful for their support system.

"It's not something you can do alone," Annie said. "You're going to need your family, and your friends, and your community for all sorts of different things."

Faith Baptist Church in Monroe, where the Wells family attends, has helped by giving the family food and gift cards. After a day of chemo, which can run as long as eight hours, "the last thing you want to do is cook," Jared said.

Family and others have also contributed money to help pay for Ella's treatment. Even strangers have shown generosity by sending treats for the kids.

Jared said his co-workers have been helpful in covering his shifts and giving them food. He's a nurse at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison, while Ella is receiving her treatment from the American Family Children's Hospital in Madison.

The Wells family expressed appreciation for the staff at the children's hospital.

"There's a ton of scary things that, as a mother, your heart breaks that your four-year-old has to deal with," Annie said, noting that hospital staff try to make the experience easier for the kids.

"The thing that helps us is we have a strong faith in God and that we believe that everything happens for a purpose," Jared said. "And even though this is difficult, we know that God watches over us and helps us throughout the process, and that has been very beneficial."

Ella's presence in their family is a blessing in itself, he said. After six years of trying to have kids, he and Annie decided to adopt. After a couple potential adoptions fell through, they found Ella.

People sometimes ask "what if" questions about Ella had they not adopted her.

"The treatments are difficult and you have to really watch closely with the medications," Jared said. "It could have been a lot different, so I think for both of us, we're very blessed to have each other."

To help pay for Ella's treatment, Annie's sister suggested they hold a fundraiser. Once others started volunteering to help organize the event, it took off.

According to Mandy Jordan, Annie's friend, the fundraiser will have a game area, a photo booth with costumes, facepainting and live music. Organizers are also planning a live auction, a silent auction and a "Boutique Marketplace" similar to a craft show or flea market, where donated items will be sold.

Jordan said a bone marrow donation organization and a representative from Relay for Life will be at the event.

"Ella hopefully will not need a bone marrow donation, but we wanted to use our audience to help raise awareness for those who do," Jordan wrote in an email.

The benefit fundraiser is set for Saturday, April 5 from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. in the Monroe Middle School gymnasium, 1510 13th St., Monroe. More than 300 people have "liked" the event's Facebook page and 75 have said they are coming to the fundraiser, but Jordan hopes for at least 300 to attend.

"We're excited for it," Annie said. "Hopefully Ella's counts are good, you know, and she'll be able to be there."

To make a donation, contact Sherry Pollock at 608-325-4750 or or Kathy Burchell at