You come to meet people in this life, that radiate this kind of energy. An energy you cannot define, yet you always feel. An energy that did not deplete when times got tough, when days got hard, and living became difficult. My friend, Laura Hillier had that energy. I am honoured to be talking about my friend Laura for the first BurlingtonDavid blog post as a local hero. I also want to inform readers that I have spoken with Frances and Greg Hillier for their blessings to highlight Laura and the progress ignited from her advocacy.
The thing is…Laura is more than a local hero; she is a national treasure. I say that because of her impact. For those who do not know Laura’s story. It begins with a kind, brilliant, artistic, and young girl. Laura and I became friends at Pineland Public School, both being in French Immersion. We ended up finding out that my mom (Darlene) grew up a block over from Frances’ family in the Mountainside community and were friends! What a small world! (That’s Burlington for you!)
Laura was always the smartest person in class. I had a bad habit of being chatty, so often I found myself being told to sit next to Laura (who exemplified excellent behaviour). I sure learned a thing or two from her.
Late in Grade 7 we found out that Laura had to take a leave of absence because she had fallen ill. We then were told that Laura had been diagnosed with Leukemia. This devastating news brought a community together to rally for our friend.
In grade 9 Laura was back! She was in remission after receiving treatment at McMaster Children’s Hospital in Hamilton, ON. She was excelling in school, crushing her extracurriculars (especially drama club) where she was a lead in a variety of school plays and musicals. Once again, I found myself assigned next to Laura. Right at the front of the class, where she loved to be, and I hated to be. I would often joke to our French teacher at the time that Laura was cheating off my test and stealing my answers. I would get a grin from Laura, and an eye roll from the teacher who of course brushed it off knowing Laura’s moral compass was as straight as an arrow.
Laura was diagnosed with the same cancer once again at the end of Grade 12. She fought like hell. She even attended our high school graduation. We could not have been prouder of our friend.
Moving into mid 2015, Laura found a perfect stem cell donor match for her essential transplant that had to happen to save her life. Despite having a stem cell match ready to donate, the healthcare system did not have a specialized bed or enough physicians to complete the transplant. This was a problem that the public didn’t know about. Laura being the fighter and advocate she was, knew that this was morally wrong and spoke with media. Many others in her situation were waiting and some died because of the wait. While in her bed and about to be intubated for the second time, she recorded a message pleading to the government to further invest in critical care infrastructure to ensure that people who have a donor can get a transplant.
Laura Hillier passed away on January 20th, 2016. Family, friends, neighbours and beyond lost a special human being because of the specific failures of the stem cell transplant system.
Laura did not want this to happen to another single person in this country. Laura’s plea, her family’s continuous efforts and the government’s willingness to listen to her story has since driven extremely positive change.
Laura is my hero for a variety of reasons, stemming from that moral compass I talked about. That compass guided her through her final days, exhibited her strength and expressed her care for everyone around her. In Frances Hillier’s words “Laura’s advocacy ignited a spark that could not be extinguished”.
Months after Laura’s death, a provincial task force was created to address the crisis. Frances was invited by the Provincial Minister of Health to sit on this task force. Recently Frances sent out an update that warmed my heart. Progress is being made. Laura is making a difference, every single day. Here are some of the amazing examples of her impact in Ontario.
What Has Happened
· Capital expansion projects have been completed at Princess Margaret Hospital (in Toronto), The Ottawa Hospital, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre (in Toronto) and The Juravinski Hospital (in Hamilton), significantly increasing the number of blood cancer patients who can be cared for in the province.
· Many additional transplant physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses have been hired.
· A new fellowship program was created to entice and train hematologists for this specialty.
· A nurse practitioner mentoring program and a nurse training program were developed for this highly specialized area.
· Models of care for treating blood cancer patients have been revamped so that patient care can be shared across many cancer centres and hospitals rather than overwhelming the capacity at the few transplant centres. As such, more healthcare professionals are familiar with the treatment of blood cancers and care can be provided closer to home for patients, especially post-transplant care.
What is Happening?
· London Health Sciences is undergoing a project to expand its stem cell transplantation program.
· Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children is renovating its stem cell transplant unit.
· A brand-new facility at the site of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre will be built, dedicated to treating patients with blood cancers, including stem cell transplantation.
· Pilot sites in Ontario have begun using a new type of targeted cancer chemotherapy called Chimeric Antigen Receptor (or CAR) T-cell therapy, expected to be effective in treating some blood cancers.
· Canadian Blood Services is substantially increasing its efforts to recruit stem cell donors across Canada and university stem cell clubs are also raising awareness and recruiting donors.
It is an absolute honour and privilege to call Laura my friend. Her voice is still strong despite her not being with us. Her actions and advocacy have had a lasting impact, have saved lives, and will ensure that nobody must go through what she did. Laura is my hero. She is a shining light. She reminds me to be strong when I have tough days. I could not think of a bigger hero in my life to highlight for my first blog post. Thank you to Frances, Greg, Heather and the Hillier/Pitt family for letting me share this story.
I encourage you to watch the short film A Voice for Change: The Laura Hillier Story by local filmmaker Sarah Gonyea to learn more about Laura’s journey and impact.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
If you felt inspired by Laura like I have been my entire life, head over to http://laura.childhoodcancer.ca/ where The Childhood Cancer Canada Foundation (CCCF) has a website to support projects in Laura’s honour. Please consider a small donation if you are able.
“Life is a song… sing it ‘til your heart’s content.” Laura