They say it’s a mother’s worst nightmare.
And Qualicum Beach mom Leanne Davis can say from experience it’s true.
She still remembers the day doctors confirmed her then-13-year-old daughter, Olivia, was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL) just one week before Christmas, 2013.
“All these doctors we saw over a five-month period kept assuring us they felt it wasn’t cancer, they’d say ‘we’re not quite sure, we’re confused, nothing abnormal is coming back that tells us she has cancer,’ but they were all perplexed,” recalls Leanne. “They knew something was going on but weren’t quite sure what.”
While health care professionals ran countless tests on Olivia, who was in Grade 8 at Kwalikum Secondary at the time, the young athlete continued playing hockey and going to school until everything abruptly changed.
“On December 18, 2013 the pediatrician called and said ‘we found blast cells and we think Olivia has cancer’… my heart dropped,” she said. “When I got that phone call Olivia was home from school, my husband was away working in Vancouver, my parents who live down the street were over in Vancouver visiting my brother and my oldest daughter was living in Alberta. So I was here, alone.”
The pediatrician told Leanne to bring Olivia down to B.C. Children’s Hospital as soon as possible. There, they took a bone marrow biopsy which found Olivia had 84 per cent leukaemia cells in her bone marrow.
“I just broke down in tears, this kind of primal cry. I’ve never heard myself cry like that. It was just heartbreaking,” said Leanne. “And the next day they started chemo.”
She said the first seven months were intense and the family stayed on the Lower Mainland.
“Everytime you go into a cycle of chemotherapy the nurse comes in and talks to you about the different chemos they’re going to give your child and the possible side effects and possible long-term effects and every single time I cried,” she said, noting the potential side effects included not only nausea and vomiting, but also burning urine, mouth sores, burning eyes, aching joints and aching bones to name a few.
During those dismal days, which Leanne recalls as being a blur, she said there was one “saving grace.”
The Davis family was able to stay at the Ronald McDonald House (RMH)in Vancouver, a home away from home for out-of-town families with seriously ill or injured children being treated at B.C. Children’s Hospital.
“It was amazing. It just felt like home,” said Leanne about the facility.
“When my husband and I came there for the first time on Christmas Eve… we just felt at home. That was the first night we had slept in a real bed in a week. We had both squeezed onto a single hospital bed in Olivia’s room for the first week, so having an actual comfortable queen-sized bed to sleep in, in our own room and a quiet environment, was just what we needed to refuel.”
Leanne said the RMH was festively decorated that December and volunteers even came to prepare Christmas dinner.
“We met other families, there were quite a few kids with cancer and we got to know them well. It was helpful because we all needed each other through the heartaches of treatments and the fear that takes up residence in the pit of your stomach,” she said. “In the same respect, it’s really hard because there’s been a lot of kids who have passed away.”
The RMH provides private rooms for families and shared common spaces to socialize with others staying at the facility. The RMH recently opened its doors to a larger house which has 73 guest rooms and can serve 2,500 families each year. According to RMH, 31 per cent of the families they accommodate are from Vancouver Island.
The house is meant to provide accommodation and access to healthcare for families in need, reduce financial burdens, support sick children, keep families together and help families resume a sense of normalcy during times of tragedy.
“We could gather to watch a movie together, have a cup of tea and chit chat in the kitchen, share a meal. We were all there for each other,” said Leanne. “There was a lot of laughter and also many tears between us.”
The Davis family stayed at the RMH during the first seven months of Olivia’s chemotherapy treatment. Today, she still undergoes chemotherapy but on a less frequent basis than before, going about once per month. Olivia’s treatment will end after 2.5 years this spring.
While it’s been an uphill battle, Olivia is back in school and playing hockey again. Since her diagnosis, she’s spoken out about her battle with cancer at Tour de Rock functions in Parksville bringing audiences to tears.
Last year, Olivia and her friend, Elle Spicer, started Healing Headwear, making and selling bows and headbands to raise money to give back to the RMH. They ended up raising $2,300.
“Ronald McDonald House was really a saving grace to us and our family will forever be grateful to this amazing organization,” said Leanne.