Auckland woman Emma was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukaemia four years ago. She and her husband and daughter Rebecca were living in Australia and Emma was hospitalised for almost four months as she underwent continued treatments for her cancer. Becca was almost three at the time.
"We would have gotten through somehow but Kenzie's Gift has really helped and made it so much easier for us."
"It was rough," said Emma. "I was very sick and was on life support for six weeks. I lost weight, I had so many tubes in my body and I didn't look the same. We tried to reassure Becca, saying to her 'Mummy is sick but she will get better' but it was extremely hard for her and there were times when she wouldn't speak to me at all."
The family returned to New Zealand where Emma had three relapses of her illness, spending a total of almost ten months in hospital. "I had something like 200 appointments in 2012. We have certainly ridden the rollercoaster."
And like a rollercoaster, there were highs and lows - and during the lows Emma put together memory books of photos and stories for her daughter, never knowing for sure if she would make it through another relapse stage.
Both Emma and her husband realised the benefit of open and honest communication with their daughter. "Becca was amazing," said Emma. "She understood what was happening, knew that Mummy was sick and that Mummy could die."
Emma underwent another bone marrow transplant procedure over Christmas last year and it was about this time that Becca, almost seven at the time, started to behave differently.
"She was finding it very hard. She became clingy, hung onto Mummy and wasn't sleeping well at night. She had two fears - the first was that Mummy would die and the second that our cat Scruff would be run over. When she asked my husband if Scruff might be hit by a car, he replied , 'no, of course not – he will be OK' ... and then not 12 hours later, our cat was run over. That was the final straw for Becca. When Scruff died she learned that death is finite. I don' think she really understood before - death wasn't real for her yet - and with the loss of Scruff, she learned that Mummy could die too and wouldn’t be coming back."
Becca had started school by this time and became tearful and uncommunicative. Unable to make friends, she became increasingly isolated and her teacher and parents were very concerned. Things were so much harder at home: a sick Mum, a stressed Dad trying to care for his family and hold down a full time job and Becca who was not coping. There were periods of intense depression for Emma and her husband.
"We thought we were coping and then realised we weren't. It was just all too much."
Emma heard about Kenzie's Gift through the Leukaemia and Blood Foundation and a phone conversation with Nic Russell (CEO of Kenzie's Gift) was a ray of sunshine and hope, providing reassurance and the certainty that help was available for Becca.
" Nic explained to me how Kenzie's Gift could help and then the ball was rolling. We heard from Child Psychotherapist Lorna Wood very quickly. It was all very efficient. They were very organised and did exactly what they said they would do."
Lorna spent the first session discussing the family situation with Emma and her husband. Three one-to-one sessions with Becca followed and then Lorna met with them again. "I couldn't believe how much Lorna could deduce about my daughter in just three sessions. It was obvious they had struck up a real rapport and of course we were very impressed with Lorna too and extremely relieved she was helping our child in such a positive way."
The improvements have been significant. "I noticed very soon that Becca was becoming more confident, her friends were coming back online and she was sleeping better. Becca calls Lorna her 'playroom friend'. Some weeks Becca isn't able to attend her session and when that happens, Lorna sends her a postcard or a letter in the mail, just to stay in touch. Becca loves that."
Becca has been seeing Lorna since February 2013. She has a 50 minute private session each week at Lorna's Remuera clinic and looks forward to going. "She skips down the drive to where Lorna is waiting for her and then bursts out the door at the end. She loves the drawing and playing with the family figures in the sandpit and likes having someone she can talk to who is there just for her, one to one. I can see such an improvement, such a difference in her and that's all that matters."
Lorna also communicates regularly with Becca's teacher at school, passing on helpful tips for the classroom.
Emma admits that while the physical aspects of cancer and its treatments are challenging, coping with the intense emotional responses her family have experienced is in many ways far harder. "There is good medical support for you but it's hard to find help for the emotional issues. Nurses and doctors in the hospital are so busy and have little time for supporting patients and families psychosocially and we were pretty much left scrabbling about on our own. We would have gotten through somehow but Kenzie's Gift has really helped and made it so much easier for us."
Emma is now 6 months out from her most recent bone marrow transplant and doing well. "I didn't think I would see Becca's 7th birthday but we've just celebrated that and now I'm hoping to be here for her 10th." Emma feels confident that both she and her family are stronger now after receiving support from both Kenzie's Gift and the Leukemia and Blood Foundation. "I think that Becca will come out of this as a more caring, stronger and empathetic person with some qualities that will stay with her throughout her life."
Kenzie's Gift has given Emma and her husband a true 'gift'. "They have helped us get our child emotionally and physically back on track. I'm so grateful and thankful for their existence. It's wonderful to see someone who has suffered so much, as Nic Russell has, giving back something of such value to the community and we'll be eternally grateful. "