“You didn’t really know what was going on, aye?”
Megan Aramoana says this to her 14-year-old son DJ, who is scooped under her arm on their living room couch. It’s a warm afternoon, and yet DJ is wearing a hoodie.
“We spent the first night in Starship on Level 5, and then we were taken up to Level 7. DJ knew he had acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), but it wasn’t until he saw the sign on the ward… he was like, ‘Do I have cancer?’ and his oncologist said yes.”
Despite going up to Level 7, Megan felt like she was falling. Level 7 was for cancer patients. What would that mean? Would the elevator doors open to a giant black abyss? It was terrifying, but there was no other option – DJ needed treatment.
“It basically cemented what was wrong. We would have to face it. It would make it real.”
When Megan says ‘it’, she means the horrific idea that her 9-year-old son could die.
“So we’re on Level 7, and they show us around. They’re like, so…this is where you put your food, the fridge and the kitchen are here, and you can cook in here.”
“I was like, ‘Why would I want to do that?’ I just didn’t get it. Then they go, ‘Oh, you’re not going home. You’re staying here.’”
They didn’t know it, but ‘staying here’ would mean that the hospital would become their second home for the next five years. School was out of the picture and it was replaced with chemotherapy, multiple relapses and transplants, seizures and surgeries
But, for everything that DJ’s blood cancer took from his life – there were just as many layers of support added to it, like LBC’s Tim Maifeleni who met the family early in DJ’s treatment.
He facilitated a ‘Monkey In My Chair’ for DJ – where a soft monkey toy sat in DJ’s school seat; collecting messages from DJ’s classmates for him to read in hospital.
DJ’s siblings also had the opportunity to get therapeutic support and meet other kids in similar situations, thanks to LBC’s Kids’ Club.
Megan remembers being told there was nothing left for DJ. “They were sending him overseas for CAR T-cell therapy, but his cancer mutated and he wasn’t eligible anymore. That was it. They said, ‘Chemo doesn’t work, we can’t do radiation and he can’t have immunotherapy because he had a seizure on it.’”
“There was just no more.” The abyss was growing bigger by the second – and Megan couldn’t see any way out. She was upset, and DJ was too. Why was this happening to their family? It didn’t make any sense.
This is when Tim from LBC stepped in. “We weren’t really in a good headspace, aye?” DJ shakes his head. “So I said to Tim, ‘Can you please come and get DJ?’ We kinda needed space to process things on our own without feeding off each other.”
Tim took DJ to the Breakers basketball team headquarters, where he met with the players and the owner, Matt, who would become another friend for DJ, like Tim had.
DJ also enjoyed having a PlayStation 4 in his room, which Tim organised as part of a bigger project on behalf of the team at LBC, who were working hard to get funding for all the kids on the ward to get PlayStations too.
Megan turns to DJ. “That was how you met Charlie, wasn’t it?”
Charlie was another child on the ward. “I woke up at 1 am one day and DJ wasn’t in bed. And I was like, where is he? I went and looked through the window in Charlie’s room and they were in there, just chatting away and playing a game.” Tragically, Charlie passed away in 2019.
“It’s been a s**t journey. But, we’ve met some cool people and done some cool things.”
DJ is in a much better place now. He has blown away all of his nurses and doctors. It’s no wonder Megan calls him her ‘Lil’ Warrior’.
“One year…” DJ says, with a big smile on his face, “LBC let me do the last bit of stairs of the Firefighter Sky Tower Challenge, with the full firefighter gear on; like the tank and helmet and stuff.”
“Did you carry the tank?” Megan teases, “I’m pretty sure one of the firemen carried your tank. You just put it on before you came out the door in front of everyone.”
“Nah!” DJ’s smile turns into a toothy grin, and his mum laughs. She looks at him for a while, as if she’s taking a mental snapshot of this moment to save for later.
Megan has stood by her Lil’ Warrior this whole time. And, vice versa, whether lounging at home, lost in the abyss or holding hands throughout a relapse, DJ has been there for his mum too.
“It’s taught our family so many things. We’re all in this together.”