Three decades ago her son lived to tell the tale of his time in hospital. It was a long time ago, but Glynis Caruso still appreciates the massive comfort that a small, cuddly donation brings.
In 2018 her son Robbie turned 36 and was married, but after a childhood cancer battle, many were quite surprised that he’d even made it past the age of six.
A success story of modern medicine, Robbie has spent more than his fair share of time in hospital. When he was 15, he had to undergo a heart transplant. Once again, he proved the doubters wrong when he came through the surgery with flying colours.
Robbie with son Aerelle and wife Morette.
No matter the result of the medical treatment, said Robbie’s mum Glynis, the experience of the treatment itself is nothing short of traumatic for the child and for their family.
“I was 30 when Robbie was diagnosed with Wilms tumour [a cancer of the kidney], and he was just four,” Glynis said.
“I originally thought, or hoped, that there had been some kind of mistake, that he was just a little bit sick. These are the tricks your mind plays to try to protect you from shock.”
“But then, one day I was taken into a special room in the hospital to be told that I will probably lose my child. I remember that I froze up inside. Everything in my life was turned immediately upside down. But then the adrenaline got going and it became about doing everything I could.”
Robbie at 4-years-old.
Circ 1987. Robbie in treatment at 5-years-old.
How does a child understand?
The greatest challenge of the entire experience, Glynis said, was the fact that young Robbie was simply not of an age to understand why he had to be torn away from the home that he loved, to stay in a place that was cold, foreign and filled with pain and sickness. Then, when treatment began there was the removal of the kidney, loss of hair and the constant nausea, the exhaustion and the suffering.
“That’s when I learnt a lot about Robbie’s strength of character,” Glynis said. “When someone at school pulled off his hat to make fun of his bald head, he decided not to wear a hat to school and instead took a big comb, so he could own the joke. He handled everything so bravely.”
At the Women’s and Children’s Hospital, Adelaide, Glynis would spend weeks camped out on the end of Robbie’s bed during his various treatments, which carried on for over a decade.
To make the hospital environment a little more familiar for her son, Glynis took one of her daughter’s toys, a pink, cuddly rabbit. Each child in the ward had something similar, something soft and familiar that would help distract them from their medical predicament and from the impersonal sterility of hospital life.
Robbie’s treatment was successful in removing the cancer from his system but when he was eight, research showed that children who had taken a particular drug during their treatment could suffer heart problems. When he turned 15, Robbie’s health took a turn for the worse and he was identified as one of those patients.
Read more: Research update: Preventing heartbreak for kids with cancer.
The only solution was a heart transplant, it would mean an interstate journey to Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, and many more months in hospital for mother and son.
In Sydney before his heart transplant, Robbie pictured with his dad who has been married to Glynis for over 45 years.
Glynis with Robbie at St Vincent's Hospital after his heart transplant.
The bear that cares
The Kids’ Cancer Project Bear Program offers anybody the opportunity to buy a bear for a seriously ill child, in any participating hospital. Not only does the bear deliver happiness to a child and their family, the proceeds also help to fund vital cancer research.
“I recently donated Sleepy Bear from The Kids’ Cancer Project Bear Program and I’ll donate another, soon,” Glynis said.
“I slept at the end of Robbie’s bed, with other sick kids all around me. It was very obvious that something to cuddle was just so important for them, even for the older children."
“Anything that brings distraction or joy is very good for the children in the ward. It removes their mind from where they are, even for just a few minutes. It helps, just momentarily, to take away the pain for the person receiving the bear. Hopefully other parents will never have to understand just how important that moment of happiness and comfort is to a seriously ill child and their family.”
Words by Chris Sheedy.
Donate a teddy bear to a sick child so they have a cuddly companion in hospital.