Hannah Millbrandt was just seven years old when her mum, Teresa, told her that she had cancer.
Hannah had just come back from a doctor’s appointment because of a “mild fever and a cough” – she didn’t feel too under the weather – but Teresa said that a subsequent scan revealed a malignant tumour that “could be terminal” at the base of her spine.
Her father broke down when he heard the news.
But then, months into her ‘illness,’ her mum, dad and grandma were arrested.
It was “out of the blue,” the Ohio-based 21-year-old told The Mirror UK. “It all ended as suddenly as it had begun when Mum, Dad and Grandma were all arrested.”
What soon came to light is the elaborate plan Teresa had constructed to fool Hannah and their small-town community that the young girl was seriously sick.
That plan, it was later revealed during court proceedings, scammed their community out of AU$38,230 in donations they believed were going towards Hannah's treatment.
"After an article in the local newspaper, donations came flooding in," said Hannah.
Their church donated AU$8,635 from bake sales, and the local firefighters gave her a puppy she called Socks. She said that people even gave them their "ring pulls from soft drink cans" that her mum could cash in for recycling.
"One very sick wheelchair-bound teenage girl, who’d spent nine years collecting for her own care, donated the whole lot to my fund," she said.
Listen: We take a look at the maternal relationship, and how you cope when it turns toxic, on The Well. (Post continues...)
As a home care nurse, Teresa "administered" her medication and looked after her treatment.
"It just seemed to make me feel worse – I started getting awful headaches, and felt exhausted all the time.
"I hated that I couldn’t ride my bike, or play with my friends," said Hannah. "Mum came in to tell my teachers how sick I was, and what to do if I had a seizure."
Looking back, Hannah says that there were tell-tale signs, that she says were strange.
For instance, Hannah says when it came to her medical appointments, whenever her dad tried to reschedule his work to go with her, the appointments would "weirdly" always get cancelled.
Instead it was Teresa and maternal grandmother, Mary, that would go with her.
"They’d take me for ice cream before, and it would make me sleepy," she remembers.
"I’d wake up later and Mum would tell me the doctors had given me a shot of medication.
"One day I woke up with a bandage on my lower spine. ‘The bandage is covering the port where your cancer nurse, Beth, administered your chemo,’ explained Mum. Beth came regularly after that, although I never saw her.
"I’d wake up with bandages where Beth had treated me."
Then, one morning, Hannah woke up to find all her hair gone.
"One day I woke up to find it all gone," she wrote. "I screamed when I looked in the mirror – I was completely bald. "
Screaming, and sobbing, Teresa told her that Beth had shaved it in her sleep.
"'Will it grow back?’ I sobbed. ‘No, I don’t think so,’ Mum said matter-of-factly."
It became Teresa's undoing.
A teacher at school had noticed that Hannah's hair was growing back "fuzzily but evenly," and not the patchy style common with chemo patients.
"She became suspicious and reported my mum to the local family services department," said Hannah.
Immediately after their arrest, Hannah's mum was put in a psychiatric hospital and her dad was released on bail.
At the trial, Hannah's mother pleaded to guilty by reason of insanity to theft and child endangerment, and claimed to have Munchausen by Proxy (a mental illness in which a caregiver invents or causes an illness for the person in their care). This was rejected after a psychiatric evaluation and Teresa was eventually sentenced to six and a half years in prison.
While Hannah was, and is, adamant that her dad was unaware of her scam, he was sentenced to jail and wasn't released until she was 15.
Now, 21, engaged and studying at university, Hannah says she wants to become a social worker.
"I want to help kids in foster care, because I know how scary that can be," she said.
"I hope one day I’ll be able to help people who’ve been victims of abuse," she said.
"I want them to know there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"One day, I hope to have kids of my own, and I know I’ll be the mum that monster never was to me."
You can read Hannah's story in The Mirror here.
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