To a child suffering a life-threatening illness, a teddy from The Kids’ Cancer Project Bear Program is so much more than a cuddly toy.
You go into a “sort of hyperdrive” when your child is first diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, says Sydney dad Paul French.
Although it’s difficult to describe the exact sensation, it’s as if everything speeds up and becomes more intense. It’s like every single second is more important than the last which, of course, it is.
“We contacted people around the world, did medical research and asked for prayers, and all the while the shock was setting in,” Paul says, with vivid recollection of the very moment, at exactly 4pm, seven days before Christmas, that he was told his nine-year-old son Kaleb had a tumour the size of a lemon in his brain. The tumour was more than likely cancerous.
“We were told the prognosis was extremely poor. We went through horror, grief, denial, anger, panic and disbelief. Kaleb immediately went into surgery to relieve the pressure in his head, then on Christmas Eve he had a major, eight-hour operation.”
What followed was around 12 months of treatment at Westmead Children’s Hospital, including high-dose, targeted radiotherapy and intense chemotherapy. The treatment was a success and Kaleb was cancer free, if very weak, for 18 months. Not long after this it was discovered that the cancer had returned with vengeance.
Kaleb passed away at the age of 13, four years after first being diagnosed.
“My wife Tracey and I had decided at the very beginning that Kaleb would not spend a single day or night in hospital on his own,” Paul says. “Tracey did days and I did nights.”
“Kaleb was one of four children, and what we saw with Kaleb and others at the hospital was children torn away from their homes, away from the environment that makes them most comfortable, away from a very important part of themselves.”
“Every day they’re facing treatment, sickness, pain, medication, medical machines and needles. They’re in a world with new rules and routines, unpleasant things over which they have absolutely no control. Then, in a moment of magic, someone walks in with a bear.”
The magic of a bear
What a child needs, in this difficult medical environment, is familiarity and softness, Paul says. That’s part of the “magic” that he says is delivered with a bear, but the gift brings so much more than that.
First of all, it’s a surprise. Rather than a doctor or nurse walking in with medical items or a test result, or a parent looking tired and glum, or somebody else who is simply doing their job, a bear is delivered with happiness and a smile. The moment of delivery, Paul says, brightens the day of everybody in the hospital room.
“It’s just an inanimate object but it gives so much,” he says. “It’s impossible to have a sad face when you’re giving, or receiving, a bear.”
Paul witnessed such moments numerous times during the years he spent in hospital with Kaleb. Typically everybody on the ward is looking down, feeling tired or dejected, and the entry of the bear makes everybody look up and smile.
And it’s not only about the child, Paul says. Their family and the hospital staff also receive a boost from the joy brought into the lives of those in their care, by a bear.
Random act of kindness
The Kids’ Cancer Project Bear Program offers anybody the opportunity to buy a bear for a seriously ill child, in any hospital. Not only does the bear deliver happiness to a child and their family, the proceeds also help to fund vital cancer research.
“Kaleb had a number of bears and home-made blankets and we keep them all, we hold on to them,” Paul says. “We now buy two bears from The Kids’ Cancer Project Bear Program at a time, one for our home and one for a child in hospital. We know exactly how much good it can do for the children and their families.”
“Hopefully people will never have to experience the kids’ ward, but unfortunately many will. A lot of us don’t have time to volunteer, but we can send a bear. And it really means a lot. We jammed a lifetime into Kaleb’s final four years and when I think back, it’s as if we spent every day with a child in one arm and a bear in the other.”