Samantha Sirbos, 7, is proudly showing her soccer trophy on display in her room, then she jumps onto her bed and starts tickling her little sister, Ava.
The room looks like any ordinary girl’s room – pink and green with stuffed toys on the bed – but, for Samantha, the last year has been spent in a very different room.
This is the first week Sammy has moved back home after a year of living in the hospital.
Sammy was re-diagnosed with leukemia last year. This time around, she had to go through intense chemo and radiation, but she also successfully beat the cancer thanks to a bone marrow transplant provided by the Canadian Blood Services OneMatch network.
Chris Sirbos, her father, is a constable at 13 Division. He, along with his wife, Maria, and younger daughter Ava have either been living at Sick Kids or in a small apartment nearby, which they rented to be closer to Sammy. Now that the Sirbos family is back home, life is slowly beginning to feel like normal again.
“It’s time to enjoy the backyard, enjoy the family… It was time to come home,” says Chris, sitting on the deck in his home in Pickering. The two girls are busy playing in the backyard, while he watches over them, warning them not to be too rough.
“The condo (downtown) was our safety net. We couldn’t wait to come home, but I was also very anxious,” says Maria, saying having a sick child and a younger one, it was more convenient to live close to the hospital.
It was in September 2013 that Sammy started getting backaches and stomach aches. Her mother was continuously being called in to pick Sammy up from school. This was concerning for Maria, since Sammy who, had leukemia at age 3, was now almost four years clear of the cancer. After a month of Sammy’s complaints, but clear blood tests, Maria’s intuition led her to take the child back to Sick Kids.
The doctors confirmed their worst fears. She had relapsed. For the family it was devastating.
“Our life was just snatched away from us all over again,” Maria said.
The doctors were ready to take the same route they had when Sammy was first diagnosed – two years of intense chemotherapy. The idea of a bone marrow transplant had not crossed anyone’s mind. However, a test was done to check if her bone marrow was diseased as a precaution. The results came in three months later – it was diseased.
The family was in for more bad news. None of them was a match to be donors for Sammy, which was when the search began to find a match.
When you’re waiting, every second, every minute, every hour and every day seem like forever
“When you’re waiting, every second, every minute, every hour and every day seem like forever,” says Chris. The family waited a month for a match, never leaving the hospital and, in a month, the doctors came in to tell them the good news. They had found a match – a 24-year-old man from Europe.
“Even though you exhale, you know there is a hard road ahead of you,” says Chris.
Sammy’s transplant was set for February. In the meantime her parents were at her side at all times. Ava, 4, was often away from them, staying with her grandmother. “She took it really well,” says Maria, it was like she knew something was wrong when Sammy was ill. She acted like a big girl.” Soon enough, the family decided to rent a place downtown so they could be close to both children. It may have been a good idea, too, since Sammy was diagnosed with a fungal infection in her liver and her transplant was delayed to May.
In the meantime, with so much time spent in the hospital, Maria and Chris could see from others in the hospital what cancer does to families. There were people in the hospital who had lost their jobs and their homes. The Sirbos’, however, had a large support system of family and the Toronto Police Service.
The family was overwhelmed with support. The first time around, says Chris, the family had gone through the treatment privately. This time they opened up and the support came pouring in.
“Every time I walked into the hallway, there was someone there,” says Maria, “whether it was a text message, food, a visit or even a fundraiser,” she says, “it was like someone was always there.”
To offset costs, two of Chris’s fellow officers from 13 Division, Garvin Khan and Remo D’Antonio, started a small fundraiser. Within days the family was receiving support, donations and messages from the police family all across Canada. “From Niagara, Calgary, Windsor, Edmonton… We even got messages from family members of police officers, strangers who knew police officers… It kept growing and growing,” says Maria. “There was no outside blog or media, just the support of the coppers,” she adds.
The support was so strong the family is not sure how to thank everyone.
The TPS family came together for us, says Chris.
“I’m so proud, I couldn’t be prouder of police officers and I’m proud to be a part of the TPS family,” adds Maria.
Service members also held two events to find donor matches for Sammy. Chris says those swabs can be used to help other children with cancer. “It is so easy, just a swab,” he says, of the difficulty of finding matches, “if every person born was swabbed, we could always find a match” for those with cancer.
“When someone needs a heart, someone has to die for it but with bone marrow transplants it’s a win-win situation for both,” says Maria, “it just takes up a few hours of your day.” Both parents add that the importance of blood donations can’t be overemphasized either. They remember Christmas Day when Sammy needed blood and the hospital didn’t have any. So blood drives are just as important they say.
They are supporting the Sirens For Life campaign, a blood drive and friendly competition between police, firefighters and paramedics to see who can make the most blood donations.
For Sammy, her long ordeal of living in hospitals, of being sick due to medications, chemo, side effects of medication – all of that is behind her. Her favourite thing about being home? Her bed. “It’s so comfortable,” she exclaims, as she starts to jump on it.