Blood brothers

Sloan and Ryder are blood brothers. They’re not just best friends who nicked their palms with a jackknife and squeezed their palms together to mix their blood. No, these boys are blood brothers in the truest sense of the title.

In 2008, I had just given birth to Sloan and Ryder’s little brother Cruz when Sloan was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. He had just turned two. When Sloan relapsed after his fourth round of chemotherapy, my husband Rodney and I knew his only hope for survival was a stem cell transplant.

Stem cell transplants are extremely high-risk and life-threatening procedures that involve months of high-dose chemotherapy and radiation to wipe out the patient’s immune system to replace it with healthy blood cells.

Sloan with mom

Still reeling from this news, we discovered that Sloan’s brother Ryder was an identical donor match for transplant. In the frightening and turbulent world of cancer and transplantation, we had just hit the jackpot.

The odds of a sibling match are only 25 per cent, but transplants with sibling donors have the best possible outcomes. There are fewer complications, like graft versus host disease, and the chances of long-term survival are much higher. Still, it’s a high-risk procedure that demands round-the-clock care and a huge commitment from the entire family.

During a stem cell transplant, they essentially take your child up to death’s door and then start rebuilding him. If it doesn’t work, the child dies because there’s nothing left of him, no immune system is left. It was gut-wrenching to see Sloan like this. Preparing for transplantation was far worse than his previous chemotherapies. He was so sick he would vomit his own stomach lining. It was horrible to watch Sloan endure that kind of pain.

It was a gruelling experience that lasted well over a year. Rodney took a leave of absence from work and we alternated shifts at the hospital — three nights on and three nights off. Cruz was still nursing, so he was always right there with me and Sloan at the hospital. His bedroom was a playpen in the bathroom of Sloan’s hospital room.

Sloan and little brother Cruz

The intense chemo and radiation treatments left Sloan with a dangerously low immune system and required that he be isolated from the outside world for months afterwards.

Before transplant, Sloan spent 72 days without a break in hospital. Then it was another full year before he recovered. It was like serving jail time. We were so isolated. We lost all our sense of freedom. Camp was the only thing Sloan could do that whole year.

Constantly filling in for each other at the hospital or at home, Rodney and I hadn’t spent any time together in over a year. Camp was our first break too.

Sloan with a friend at SunRise in 2010

We survived the transplant, but not without its traumatic aftershock. I suffered from severe insomnia and anxiety afterwards and was eventually treated for post-traumatic stress disorder. It started when we brought Sloan home. I would stay up at night, listening to his cough, worrying about his cancer coming back. I think the hospital provided me with a sense of security; daily blood cell counts and caring hospital staff ensured that we were on top of it. Once we were at home, I was plagued with fear that his cancer would return.

We’re so fortunate for modern medicine, blood donors and the doctors and nurses who took such excellent care to ensure Sloan has an opportunity to live a healthy, normal childhood. Although childhood cancer has forever changed us, we are so grateful to have met so many wonderful hospital staff, volunteers and friends through Kids Cancer Care, who have impacted Sloan’s journey to recovery.

All three brothers help out at Kids Cancer Care’s Parents’ Quest for the Cure gala in March 2017

Sloan has been cancer-free for almost nine years now. He still goes for baseline testing every year and will continue to be annually monitored for the rest of his life. While many of the long-term side effects are still unknown, what is certain is that he is at high-risk for certain heart conditions and secondary cancers.

Thankfully, he hasn’t shown any signs of cognitive impairment. Sloan is a strong student in both reading and math. Last year, he received a certificate of distinction from The Calgary Elementary School Math Contest, sponsored by the Mount Royal University. Sloan is also a passionate Rubik’s Cube competitor.

All three boys are growing like wildflowers, endlessly roughhousing and teasing each other as brothers do. When Ryder gets in trouble for teasing his brother, he’ll say, “C’mom mom, I saved his life, give me a break.’”

The boys today

We’ve regained our stride and we have a healthy appreciation for life.

I have no illusions about death. We don’t know what Sloan’s life expectancy is, or ours, so we try to embrace our life now. Every day we have together is a gift.

– Karin McGinn, Sloan and Ryder’s mom

Blood brothers
Karin McGinn exhibited her work, Blood Brothers, at the Marion Nicoll Gallery and +15 at the Epcor Centre for Performing Arts in 2014. The individual life-size figures in this
fibre work commemorate the bond shared between her sons Sloan and Ryder through a courageous gift of life. When two-year-old Sloan was diagnosed with a highly aggressive blood cancer in 2008, four-year-old Ryder donated his stem cells to save his brother’s life. The transplant was successful and the two boys and their little brother Cruz are thriving today. 

Kids Cancer Care has partnered with Canadian Blood Services for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. On September 19th, Sloan and Ryder will appear at the special Grand Opening of the new Blood Donor Clinic in Calgary. It’s in you to give – book your blood donation appointment in honour of Sloan today. Please contact the Lifebus/Group appointment coordinator at 403-410-2722 or via email.