Back in June of 2022, little 13 month old Spencer Coombs and his family had their lives turned upside down.
Following his first birthday Spencer had been feeling unwell for several weeks. He had also just started daycare part-time which his family attributed his symptoms as being related to the transition (runny nose, low fever, separation anxiety).
But on June 9th Spencer’s symptoms took a sudden turn for the worse.
“I took him to the emergency department in Picton,” said Jackie Coombs, Spencer’s mother. “The staff there were amazing, they acted quickly, by bringing him in for an examination, blood work and starting an IV. Initially they thought he might have a severe ear infection as his white blood cell count was higher than normal. Within about an hour, it was clear to them that they were dealing with something far beyond a typical infection.”
After being told they were going to be airlifted to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) in Ottawa, Jackie quickly made calls to friends to arrange for her other children to be picked up from school as her husband was on a flight home from a work trip.
“Suddenly things were moving quickly and the team decided that waiting on the helicopter would be too long so we were urgently transported by ambulance instead to Kingston General Hospital (KGH),” Jackie expressed. “We were accompanied by a nurse as well as a doctor from Picton to ensure Spencer was safe through the ride as his condition was deteriorating.”
Upon arrival in Kingston, the paediatric team was able to more thoroughly assess Spencer and it was decided they were confident in being able to provide care there vs moving them to Ottawa.
“We were admitted to the paediatric unit as we awaited further information as to what was going on with him, at this point I knew that his kidneys were severely impacted by whatever was going on,” said Jackie. “Around midnight I was introduced to Dr. Laura Wheaton, a paediatric hematologist/oncologist who delivered the news that Spencer had leukemia. It was a devastating moment, at which point I had to call my husband who had just landed and was driving straight from Toronto to Kingston, to pass on the news just minutes ahead of his arrival. “
“The official diagnosis was Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).”
For the next two weeks they would remain at KGH in the Paediatric Critical Care Unit where Spencer received around the clock care.
“We learned his kidneys were being impacted by the leukemia cells, and his spleen and liver were full of tumour cells,” Jackie said. “There was no delay in starting chemo which began the very next day starting with a sedation and lumbar puncture, (a procedure we learned early on is one of the mainstays of leukemia treatment). An intensive chemo regimen persisted throughout the first three months after diagnosis with multiple trips to Kingston per week and several admissions to the emergency department for fevers. Fevers during chemotherapy can be the sign of an infection and medical attention must be sought immediately. So I have made many middle of the night drives to Kingston from the County and have learned to keep an overnight bag at the ready for Spencer and I.”
The fall brought Spencer a lessened chemotherapy schedule, but all treatment had to be done at the hospital on the paediatric unit for several days.
“Our family has had to be separated through this time while I go stay in hospital and my husband John stays with our older boys, Hunter 9 and Harry 7,” expressed Jackie. “Thankfully we were able to be home and together through the Christmas holiday though we did lose power for 52 hours. We have since started up again with a rigorous chemo protocol that will continue until May. At which point we will be considered in “maintenance chemotherapy” that continues for another two years. The treatment protocol for leukemia is lengthy.”
The Ontario Parents Advocating for Children with Cancer (OPACC) is an independent registered charity whose mission, since their establishment in 1995, has been to be the parent voice for families with children diagnosed with cancer across the Province of Ontario.
The OPACC is on their third annual wall calendar which features 12 amazing OPACC children from around Ontario, Spencer being one of them.
“I learned about OPACC and the calendar because a family friend is the parent of a childhood cancer survivor that I had known growing up,” Jackie said. “The organization offers several support services and programs to families going through the cancer process with their children. In December I submitted Spencer’s photo and story for the 2023 calendar. I specifically wanted to share our story because I am a naturopathic doctor and from day 1 we have been incorporating integrative treatment modalities & natural remedies into Spencer’s treatment plan. His oncology team has been very supportive of this. Many of the practitioners we are working with are local to the county, including Dr. Pascaline Philips, ND, Tamara Segal from Hawthorn Herbals, Dr. Heather McDowell is our chiro and the owner of County Chiropractic. Unfortunately for many parents in my situation, accessibility to these services can be an issue (awareness/acceptance/financial barriers). In future I would like to help support other families going through similar situations.”
Jackie also wanted to acknowledge how supportive the County community has been for their family.
“We are fairly new to the area having moved here October 2020, away from our families who would normally be our main support network, and yet the community here in the county has rallied to support us,” expressed Jackie. “Early on, a neighbour started a meal train for us to receive home cooked meals, a gofund me was set up to help us with the costs associated with chemo (loss of income, time off work to provide care, gas money to and from Kingston…etc.) Things any person or family dealing with a cancer diagnosis has to face.”
Jackie also expressed how Spencer has been throughout this whole process.
“He has been nothing short of a true warrior,” Jackie said. “His spirits are always high, he is cheerful, full of smiles and is able to play through some of the worst drugs that are known to cause severe fatigue, nausea, pain..etc. While he did experience some setbacks through his second year of life, we just celebrated the milestone of him starting to walk at 20 months. The nurses in Kingston cheered him on last week while we were at chemo as it was the first time he was toddling around. Spencer has a sweet personality and appears to many to be an “old soul”. It’s been an honour walking this journey with him as I have learned so much about the meaning of strength, will and resilience. It’s incredible to watch not only him, but also the other children who are part of the oncology clinic in Kingston. There is a kinship between these kids and the families who are walking the path alongside them.”
Jackie has also started coordinating a donation for KGH to create parent care packages for families of newly diagnosed paediatric cancer patients. Many businesses within PEC have been very supportive and jumped at the opportunity to get involved.
“The care packages I have put together are being called ICU Mama (a play on I see you Mama) for mothers/caregivers who are being admitted to hospital with a newly diagnosed child with cancer,” stated Jackie “Many individuals, businesses and entrepreneurs in the County have contributed both donated items as well as raising funds via a Give Send Go campaign.”
For more information on OPACC and the calendar please visit https://www.opacc.org/shop and scroll all the way to the bottom.