Hannah Milbrandt was six when she woke to find clumps of her hair strewn across her pillow.
‘Mummy my hair is falling out,’ she wept. ‘Is it the cancer?’
Her mother, Teresa, gave her a hug as she nodded ‘yes’. ‘But it will come back,’ she promised her little girl.
Hannah’s hair did come back – but with it came the exposure of a horrific lie. Hannah didn’t have cancer. She never had.
It was all a con.
‘My mum made me believe I was dying,’ Hannah, now 22, tells New Idea from her home in Springfield, Ohio.
‘The emotional heartache she put me and our family through can never be repaired. I don’t understand how she could have done this. It’s beyond cruel and I will never speak to her again.’
Hannah’s story starts in 2002 when she came down with a severe cold while living with Teresa, now 49, and her father Bob, now 59. Teresa took Hannah to the doctor – and when she came home gave her family the devastating news.
Hannah had a fast-growing cancerous tumour on her spine – and she was terminally ill.
‘I remember everyone in tears,’ Hannah recalls. ‘Later, Dad took me to one side, his eyes red from crying. “You are strong and I know you are going to fight it!” he said.
‘I remember hugging him – he was so sad it ripped my heart out. “I’m going to be OK Dad,” I said – and I meant it.’
From the start, Hannah never felt ‘ill’ – just tired all the time, as if her brain was in a fog.
She still went to school and everywhere she went she had
to wear a surgical mask to avoid germs compromising her weak immune system.
She never went to doctors for chemotherapy or any treatments. She was told she was allowed to have it at home where her mum administered it overnight.
‘Like most cancer patients, I was thin and weak,’ recalls Hannah. ‘Mum let me eat jello, ice-cream and cereal but these were foods that had little nutritional value, so I lost weight.
‘When my hair fell out and I had my head shaved I felt so self-conscious. I’d always had long hair that I loved to curl – and then it was gone and I cried for days.
‘School was hard. Mum said I was prone to seizures, so I was assigned a special aid. That, along with wearing a hat and a mask, made me feel different, and kids didn’t want to talk to me, so it was lonely.’
Hannah’s mother, meanwhile, placed pictures of her ‘cancer-stricken’ daughter around the local community, asking for donations.
When people stopped them in the street to ask after Hannah, her eyes would fill with tears and she would hug her tight.
The family’s plight led to more than US$31,000 being raised by supporters.
Back home, Hannah’s dad did everything he could to give her a normal life.
But, not long after Hannah turned seven, her mother told her she had ‘a few weeks to live’.
‘I cried a lot,’ says Hannah. ‘That’s when it hit me how seriously ill I was. After that,
I remember being terrified to go to sleep in case I died that night.
‘Although I was so young, I knew what dying meant and it was all I could think about. I didn’t want to leave my family. The emotional turmoil was terrible and I had to have counselling to help me cope.’
But then Hannah’s hair started to grow back – not in patches like others undergoing chemo, but evenly – and a school teacher became suspicious.
Hannah was called into the principal’s office where two policemen were waiting.
‘I was so scared,’ Hannah recalls. ‘I thought I’d done something wrong. The police gave me a teddy bear and they asked me if my mother had ever done anything to hurt me.
‘It was confusing. I answered their questions, and then Dad came to pick me up. When I got home, Mum wasn’t there.’
Hannah’s father told her: ‘Your mum has done something really bad... but you’re not dying.’
The cancer hoax had been uncovered. Hannah wasn’t terminally ill. Teresa had drugged her with sleeping tablets so she would appear sick.
She also put band-aids on her body, pretending they were ports where chemo was administered.
She pleaded guilty to the con, by reason of insanity – claiming she had Munchausen by proxy – a mental condition in which a caregiver invents or causes an illness of the person they are supposed to be looking after.
But after a judge ordered her to be evaluated, Teresa’s plea was rejected and she was jailed for six and a half years for theft and child endangerment.
Hannah’s father was also jailed – for four years and 11 months – after pleading guilty to child endangerment.
It’s something that Hannah truly regrets. To this day she believes he didn’t know that Teresa was lying.
Fifteen years on from her ordeal, Hannah has moved on and feels ‘lucky and blessed’.
She got engaged last September – to boyfriend Tanner – and is looking forward to their wedding.
Her mother, who has been released from prison, has tried to reconnect but Hannah says she has no interest.
‘I cannot have a relationship with that woman.
‘I try not to live with hate in my heart for her because she still is the woman who gave me life, but I will never have any form of relationship with her,’ she says.
‘I hate what she did to me.’