People

In Memoriam: A Cancer Patient, a Two-Toed Sloth and a Lifelong Wish

Terminally ill patient Caitlin Ambrose always wanted to hold a sloth. On Friday, she got her wish.


See All Photos By Shanley Pierce | June 11, 2018

UPDATED (Oct. 8, 2018):

In memoriam

Caitlin Ambrose, the Australian woman who sought experimental treatment in Houston this year for Ewing’s sarcoma and fulfilled a lifelong wish to meet a sloth, has died. She was 21.

At the end of her 19-month-long cancer battle—which arrived at 11 p.m. Aug. 1—she was surrounded, per her wishes, by family and friends in her hometown of Cabarita Beach, Australia.

“Our whole family has been overwhelmed by the enormous amount of love, support and generosity shown by everyone and we can’t thank you enough. We don’t know how our life will ever be the same. Until we meet again our brave warrior,” wrote relatives wrote on her Instagram page.

In April, Ambrose and her family traveled to Houston to participate in The University of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s first-in-human clinical trial for Ewing’s sarcoma. Although her diagnosis was terminal, Ambrose saw the trial—which is testing the efficacy of drug TK216—as an opportunity to use what little time she had left to make a difference and contribute her information in hopes of one day helping future Ewing’s sarcoma patients.

At the end of her stay in Houston, Ronald McDonald House Houston and the Houston Zoo fulfilled her wish to meet a sloth. On June 8, Ambrose and her family were treated to an exclusive meet-and-greet with Curly, a 25-year-old Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth.

ORIGINAL STORY: Caitlin Ambrose always wanted to hold a sloth.

On Friday afternoon, the 21-year-old Ewing’s sarcoma patient from Australia finally got her wish, thanks to Ronald McDonald House Houston and the Houston Zoo. Caitlin, her parents and her two siblings visited the zoo, where they were treated to an exclusive meet-and-greet with Curly, a 25-year-old Linnaeus’s two-toed sloth.

“It doesn’t feel real. It feels like it’s a big prank,” Caitlin said, gleefully, when she learned about the surprise. “I just love sloths. I just relate to them so well. They just sit there eating. They’ve got big claws and they just chill out all day. Those are my goals in my life. I love them.”

Caitlin was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in March 2017 after experiencing pain in her left ribs.

Ewing’s sarcoma is a type of tumor that grows in the bone or soft tissue of the body. The tumor can form in the bones of the legs, arms, feet, hands, chest, pelvis, spine or skull, as well as the soft tissue of the trunk, arms, legs, head and neck.

Before her diagnosis, Caitlin was halfway through earning her double degree in nursing and midwifery at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, with hopes of becoming a midwife in London. But after her doctors in Australia discovered an 8-centimeter tumor in the soft tissue of her left ribs, she abandoned her plans and embarked on a rigorous cancer treatment journey, undergoing 17 rounds of chemotherapy, surgery to remove 3.5 ribs and radiation therapy on her chest and hip. But despite their best efforts, the cancer returned in January 2018.

The five-year survival rate for patients with localized Ewing’s sarcoma is 70 percent; however, once the cancer has spread, the survival rate drops to 15 to 30 percent.

“At that stage, [doctors] told it was terminal and there was no other treatment except palliative care,” said Caitlin’s mother, Mellissa.

“I had my whole life planned out,” Caitlin said. “I was going to be a nurse and midwife by 21. I was going to be married with a kid by 30, own a house by 31. After university, I was going to go on big trips and travel all over.”

After doctors informed her that she had only a couple months left to live, Caitlin and her parents flew 8,333 miles in April 2018 from their home in Cabarita Beach, Australia, to Houston to participate in a first-in-human clinical trial for Ewing’s sarcoma at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. The trial, which is testing the efficacy of drug TK216, was a Hail Mary, but Caitlin and her parents sought to use what little time they had left to make a difference.

“It was a combination of last hope, but we also wanted to provide something for people after us,” Mellissa said. “If it didn’t work for us, her information could help others.”

Unfortunately, Caitlin’s test results showed that the tumor had continued to grow. After spending 43 days in Houston, the family decided to return home, while Caitlin was still well enough to travel, for palliative care in lieu of further treatment.

“Caitlin’s wish when she got here was that she wants to die at home, not here,” her mother said.

But before Caitlin and her family boarded their flight to Australia on Saturday, she made a special trip to the Houston Zoo to see her favorite animal. She was experiencing excruciating pain on her left side—as if “boiling water was being poured on my left rib”—but smiled from ear to ear Friday afternoon as she hung out with Curly the sloth, caressing his brown fur and taking selfies with him while he ate.

“I’ve been in such a bad mood since getting the results, and I’ve really taken it out on the family,” Caitlin said. “It’s good to have something positive when you get so much negative news.”

Organized by Amy Armstrong, house manager at Ronald McDonald House Houston, the meeting with Curly gave the Ambrose family an opportunity to focus on something other than her terminal diagnosis.

“That’s what makes the community in the House and these moments so special,” Armstrong said. “They bring you into their story and their lives.”

Once Caitlin arrives back home in Australia, she plans to spend her remaining time surrounded by friends and family near the beach.

Leaving her family “is going to be s—,” she said. Her goal, now, is to make it to her 22nd birthday, but she has learned to take things day by day.

“If you want to do something, do it now,” Caitlin said.

“She’s such a kindhearted person. Even during this journey with cancer, she’s always cared about how other people are doing,” said Caitlin’s sister, Tia, as she pushed back tears. “She always makes you want to be a better version of yourself. If you’ve had the worst day and something really hasn’t gone well, she can come up to you, say a joke or stand there and hug you, and she can make you feel so much better. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.”




Social Posts

profile_image

TexasHeartInstitute

@Texas_Heart

RT @HRSonline: Sudden #cardiacarrest claims 1 life every 90 secs. A few #SCA risk factors include a previous #heartattack, family history o…

10 mins ago
profile_image

Veterans Affairs

@DeptVetAffairs

The Dallas, TX VA and Vet Center teams met last week with leadership from the Urban Inter-Tribal Center of Texas to outline how their respective organizations can join forces to effectively reach and serve American Indian and Alaska Native Veterans. https://t.co/EBX1x6cPoV

13 mins ago
profile_image

Rice University

@RiceUniversity

RT @RiceUGPS: Lots of positive change coming to campus: the university is studying ways to create safe pathways for cyclists, and has also…

17 mins ago
profile_image

TAMU Health Sciences

@TAMHSC

The Good Run . . . #MilesforSmiles in its 10th yearOn Nov. 3, the @TAMUdental student-led Miles for Smiles continues its stride at Exall Park in Dallas with its 10th annual runathon. https://t.co/5PFPnaDnOL#TAMHSC #AggieHealth #TAMUHealth #Dentistry #DentalStudents #TAMU https://t.co/NJaxKMawVq

22 mins ago
profile_image

University of Houston

@UHouston

The John O'Quinn Foundation donates $3.5M to the UH College of Medicine, UH researchers envision in-home rehab for stroke patients, and Valenti students produce a web cooking show — here are your 60-second highlights of what's happening at UH #UHMoment https://t.co/1ork3iw0kz

22 mins ago
profile_image

CHI St. Luke's Health

@CHI_StLukes

Sometimes it’s difficult to sift through the rumors to get the facts about #BreastCancer. We’re debunking five common myths, and they just might surprise you: https://t.co/pMnncNr4ul https://t.co/0HNfCjQYgI

22 mins ago
profile_image

Rice University

@RiceUniversity

Can you die from a broken heart? 💔 Rice researchers find that grief can cause inflammation that can kill: https://t.co/1LM4kl00xd https://t.co/aoCAn36Rhg

47 mins ago
profile_image

University of Houston

@UHouston

RT @CoachApplewhite: SHOW UP AND BE LOUD! #FilltheCAGE #GoCoogs https://t.co/7ILNlswvvs

51 mins ago
profile_image

Veterans Affairs

@DeptVetAffairs

Indiana: New Veterans Affairs medical clinic planned for Muncie https://t.co/YvEjaXUhWM via @WTHRcom

52 mins ago
profile_image

University of Houston

@UHouston

@brvndonsmith I GOT SO EXCITEDDDDDD YA WOO https://t.co/VgmARKizUd

59 mins ago
profile_image

BCMHouston

@bcmhouston

RT @BCMCancer: "Breast cancer" is often used as an all-encompassing term, so Dr. Maryam Nemati Shaffee is breaking down the different types…

1 hour ago
profile_image

BCMHouston

@bcmhouston

Relaxing outside and enjoying a good book are just some of the ways Dr. Debra Palazzi stays healthy. See more of her healthy habits. https://t.co/zeEBOOSMHM #healthy #habits https://t.co/LfPCEVy6qL

1 hour ago
profile_image

TAMU Health Sciences

@TAMHSC

RT @CDCgov: #DYK almost 14 million people in the U.S. become infected with HPV each year? Some HPV infections can lead to cancer.Make sure your #preteen is protected against these cancer-causing infections with the #HPV vaccine. Learn more: https://t.co/7buubaj8T6 .#TAMHSC https://t.co/LIVewLmq7e

1 hour ago
profile_image

Veterans Affairs

@DeptVetAffairs

Oklahoma Veterans Affairs to Build New Center https://t.co/DvNayro8Rr via @usnews

1 hour ago
profile_image

Rice University

@RiceUniversity

RT @Rice_Biz: Some #MondayMotivation! Hope everyone has a great week 🦉💙 #IREP #RiceBusiness https://t.co/QlLo7O26fQ

2 hours ago