In the arms of strangers: how you’re helping families to build a healing community

“They were so wonderful. With everything they were going through, they took it upon themselves to reach out and find us. We expected to go home the next day, so we had nothing with us. Lyle brought us pajamas and clothes and shoes. They brought us supper.” ~ Rheanna Deboer

It started as a perfect summer day. Jeff and Rheanna Deboer were preparing for a family camping trip. On a whim, they decided to make a rather large detour to Calgary, so their two-year-old son Brenden could see a doctor at the Alberta Children’s Hospital. Brenden had been vomiting daily for the past two months and after three trips to the emergency and countless medical appointments, they were no closer to understanding their son’s condition. They left Brenden’s older siblings Emily and Dustin with their grandparents and headed north to Calgary.

The Deboer family at their farm in southern Alberta before Brenden was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

“We were really just going to the hospital to rule things out before our holiday,” recalls Rheanna. “We didn’t expect to come to Calgary and find a brain tumour. We expected to go back home that night, but Brenden went in for a CT scan and 20 minutes later we were meeting with the whole neurology team.”

Brenden was diagnosed with a rare brain cancer called ependymoma and scheduled for surgery the very next morning. There they were, alone and frightened in a strange city, miles away from home, eons away from their holiday plans and without so much as a change of clothes.

The Reimer family before Ella was diagnosed with a brain tumour.

In another hospital room just down the hall, another family was facing a similar nightmare. Only two weeks earlier, their two-year-old daughter Ella had been diagnosed with a brain tumour – pilocytic astrocytoma. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for Ella – surgeries, feeding tubes, breathing problems, pneumonia, infections, fevers, facial paralysis, balance and coordination issues, vision and hearing loss.

The two families happened to share the same neurosurgeon Dr. Gallagher. “After checking in on Ella, Dr. Gallagher paused and came back into the room,” recalls Ella’s mother Christie Reimer. “She said, ‘I have a family that just came in and they’re going through something very similar to you.’”

Ella’s parents, Christie and Lyle Reimer, looked at each other and immediately started looking for the Deboers.

“We hadn’t left Ella’s side for a second for the past two weeks and now here we were searching the hospital for this couple we didn’t even know,” says Christie.

It wasn’t long before they found the Deboers and they became instant friends.

“They were so wonderful,” says Rheanna Deboer. “With everything they were going through, they took it upon themselves to reach out and find us. We expected to go home the next day, so we had nothing with us. Lyle brought us pajamas and clothes and shoes. They brought us supper.”

“We talk every day now,” says Christie. “It’s so nice having someone to relate to.”

Families like the Reimers and Deboers need strong support systems while navigating childhood cancer, but the forced isolation of the disease makes it difficult to maintain relationships. It can be difficult for friends and families to understand.

That’s where you come in. The Deboer and Reimer families can continue to build their friendship through free programs that your support makes possible — programs such as Family Camp, The Polar Express and Cooking and Caring.

With fierce determination Brenden took a go at the climbing wall during spring Family Camp.

Thanks to you, the Deboer and Reimer families were able to reconnect at our spring Family Camp. They went for nature walks, participated in arts and crafts and took in the Water Valley Rodeo. Little Brenden was able to try out the climbing wall with his older brother and sister, Dustin (6) and Emily (7) — thanks to a special volunteer named Broch, who went the extra mile to find a climbing harness small enough for Brenden.

“They put the harness on Brenden and belayed him and he climbed right up,” says Rheanna. “He climbed pretty high too.”

Brenden is now finished treatment, but the Deboers still come to Calgary every four months for close monitoring. So far all the MRIs have come back clear.

“It’s such a relief that he’s doing well,” says Rheanna, “but when you go through something like this you not only carry your own worries for your own child; you also worry about all the other children. I feel so bad for the other families whose circumstances are so much worse. When we think of little Ella and everything she is going through, we feel grateful for our circumstances.”

Ella’s tumour is incurable. Sadly, it will continue to grow. To slow the growth, she is undergoing a total of 70 rounds of chemotherapy. This will take a year and half to complete. At three years of age, this is half of her life. “That’s a long time to be on chemotherapy,” says Rheanna.

Ella with her new best friend Henry, who she met at our SunRise day camp

Thankfully, with your support, Ella is building her strength and working on her balance and coordination during weekly exercise sessions at PEER (Pediatric Oncology Patients and Survivors Engaging in Exercise for Recovery).

Ella also enjoyed her first summer camp experience this year. Still a toddler, Ella goes to our SunRise day camp in Calgary. Each day, when Christie picks Ella up from camp, she asks her daughter what she did at camp today. Each day Ella replies, “I’ll tell you about that tomorrow mom.” Ella is clearly pleased with her new-found independence at this special camp. She calls it Camp Cookie — after her one-to-one volunteer aide Maisa El Kardy, whose camp name is Cookie.

Christie is relieved that Ella is making new friends at Kids Cancer Care programs. “She lost all of her friends from before cancer, but she’s starting to make friends with Sitara and Sophia at PEER.” Ella also found a new best friend at SunRise this summer — a little boy named Henry.

“We’re so grateful for Kids Cancer Care,” says Rheanna. “We’re grateful for the meals and the special family outings and the connections we’ve made with other families. These friendships are so important. We still go to Calgary every four months for MRIs, but we’re feeling optimistic and grateful for every day we have with Brenden and our other children.”

Thank you for helping to create a healing and supportive community for families facing childhood cancer.