Parents Gabby and Jesse Wyatt never thought their son Alex would be fighting for his life at just three years old. In 2021, Alex was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), a cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow. Each year in Australia, more than 200 children under the age of 15 are diagnosed with ALL.
Alex lives with mum, Gabby and dad, Jesse along with his big brother, Marcus, the family dog Dickens and their four chickens. There is a two-year age gap between Marcus and Alex, but they have often been mistaken for twins and are usually inseparable. Marcus is the more serious and studious of the pair, whereas Alex has always been a natural clown who loves to make people laugh.
In April 2021, both Alex and Marcus caught a cold that was going around their childcare centre. Marcus recovered within a week, but Alex had developed symptoms that lingered on and on – a cough that would wake him up at night and a swollen belly. He progressively started to fall in the playground instead of bouncing up like he normally would, then he started limping before eventually, he stopped walking altogether.
In mid-June, one of Alex’s childcare workers noticed a strange rash that looked like blood blisters under his skin – which they now know are called petechiae. When she pointed out the rash, Gabby noticed Alex also had small, round bruises on his legs and his head that were all the same size and shape.
Gabby immediately called the local doctor’s clinic right from the childcare centre gate.
“As an occupational therapist, Alex’s bruising and spots rang a bell from a pathology lecture I attended at university and I remember vaguely thinking that the doctor would need to rule out leukaemia. It didn’t occur to me that Alex might actually have cancer”, said Gabby.
The following morning, the family went to the zoo together before Alex’s doctor appointment. What was usually a favourite outing for Alex was different this time. He didn’t want to get out of his pram and seemed much too tired to pay attention to any of the animals.
The doctor who examined Alex referred him straight to The Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) Emergency Department (ED). At 5pm on 17 June, Gabby packed a large bag with snacks and pyjamas ready for an anticipated long wait in the ED, but in fact Alex was seen by a nurse almost straight away.
Alex had a finger prick blood test and nursing staff spent a harrowing half hour inserting a cannula into a tiny vein on his arm to allow for further blood tests and IV fluids. After a few hours, it was recommended that Jesse also came to the hospital so they could discuss what was wrong with Alex.
“I think this was the first time I began to feel frightened” Gabby said.
Just after 9pm, the doctor asked if they had ever heard of a condition called leukaemia. It was explained that Alex was a very sick boy and would have to remain in hospital for further tests and treatment. Over the weekend, Alex was treated with antibiotics and had a sample of his bone marrow taken to provide more information about his exact diagnosis.
Jesse and Gabby sat down with Alex’s consultant, Dr Diane Hanna and his nurse consultant, Alie who explained that Alex had one of the most common types of childhood cancer, pre-B, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. The cure rate for children in Alex’s age group with pre-B, ALL is high, but nevertheless the treatment regime required was going to be long and intensive.
For Gabby and Jesse, hearing the news for the first time felt like a punch in the guts.
“Everything about our family’s day-to-day life was turned completely upside-down when Alex was diagnosed with cancer. I felt nauseous and it took a couple of weeks for the shock to truly wear off. Everything happened so quickly. Alex was diagnosed on a Thursday night and by Saturday, he was in surgery – there wasn’t a lot of time to adjust” said Gabby.
Luckily for Alex, he’s receiving the best possible care at the RCH led by oncologist Di and the specialised team at the Children’s Cancer Centre. In June 2021, Alex started his chemotherapy treatment, which will continue for two and a half years from diagnosis.
He has now spent the best part of three months on and off in hospital.
Nobody ever wants their child to have to experience cancer but knowing that Melbourne is one of the best places in the world for Alex to receive the treatment he needs has been a big comfort to his family.
The RCH team have stepped Gabby and Jesse through every procedure, every side-effect and every drug. Play therapists, music and art therapy sessions have been an enormous help in raising Alex’s spirits and helping him engage in treatment. He now loves his nurses – or his ‘nursies’.
Alex is too young to fully understand his condition, but he does know he is sick and needs to take medicine for a long time. His young age has made it easier for him to accept having tubes and lines attached to his body and losing his hair, but he has started to talk about wanting to be ‘normal Alex’ again.
Alex is not scared of going to hospital even though the procedures he needs can be very invasive and sometimes very painful. The sense of belonging and connection that he feels to the RCH has been carefully created by the entire treating team.
“Alex’s cancer has forced me to realise just how fragile and precious a child’s life can be. I don’t take anything for granted anymore – I treasure every cuddle with the kids and every laugh” Gabby said.
Gabby and Jesse are hopeful Alex will make a full recovery and are grateful for the excellent care made possible through the support of the Good Friday Appeal.
Support for The Good Friday Appeal
The Good Friday Appeal is a not-for-profit charity raising money to enable The Royal Children’s Hospital to provide world class care for our children. The Appeal brings all sectors of the community together to raise funds every year culminating in a 15 hour telethon on Good Friday.
The Appeal began in 1931 when a group of journalists organised a sports carnival to raise money for charity. Woolworths become an official partner in 1986, more than 30 years ago and since then, the Woolworths Victoria team has committed to running in-store fundraising since.
The support of the Woolworths team and customers has helped raise over $20 million dollars in donations, vital in providing care and support to patients and their families.
Last year alone, over 90,000 children were treated in emergency, in addition to the 255,000 children treated at the hospital’s specialist clinics.
Anne Randall, Director of the Good Friday Appeal said: “Thank you to the Woolworths family for your continued support of the Good Friday Appeal. We are so lucky to live in a community where everyone realises the importance of the hospital’s work. The future of children’s health is in our hands and all fundraising helps our great hospital continue to improve the well-being of children and adolescents through leadership in healthcare, research and education. On behalf of all of the patients and their families, we thank you for your support.”