THE STORY BEHIND THE R.O.C.K. (Ride 4 Our Cancer Kids)

On May 21, in the year 2000, my beautiful daughter Victoria was born, five weeks premature, but completely healthy. Mere minutes later, my second daughter, Samantha arrived. There was no immediate cry or even movement from little Sammy. She was rushed into the little anteroom off to the side, without a word from the doctor.  Before the panic could fully take hold, we heard her cry as she regained her grasp on this world.

There had been a twin transfusion of blood during childbirth, a relatively rare complication in twins that share a placenta. I learned much later that the survival rate for both twins is only 60%. We were lucky though, and went home with two identical, perfectly healthy little girls.

            Life was good for the next twenty-seven months. I worked evenings while my wife worked days, so I had tons of Mr. Mom time with Vicky, Sammy, and older brother Noah. The girls would bounce in their jolly jumpers side by side, hanging between the living and dining rooms; giggling like mad when they bumped into each other. The three of them danced in our living room to the point of exhaustion. That would bring on one of my favourite times of the day – naptime.

            Time passed and our babies grew. In late August 2002, something else began to grow in our little Samantha. At first, we thought it was a cold or a summer bug at first.  She tired easily, coughed, and wheezed when she slept. Lori took her to St Joe’s in Sarnia one morning, fearing it could be developing into pneumonia. After a second look at her chest x-rays, we were told to head to London immediately for further tests. We were scared that we were being sent to a large Children’s Hospital for what we had thought was something minor.  Later that afternoon we were being told that our baby had Acute Lymphoblastic Lymphoma.  A tumour had grown rapidly in her tiny chest, collapsing one lung almost entirely and starting to press against her trachea.  If we had not brought her in when we did, she likely would have died in her crib within days.

            Most of the next five months were spent in London hospital undergoing chemotherapy.  She was an out-patient for a short period, and we treasure the memories of her time home again. We were told that her odds were good, and we kept up hope even on the darkest days.  In December there were signs that the tumour was beginning to grow again, our worst fears realized. Overwhelming fear started to chew at our hope like a rabid dog.

            We brought her home for Christmas, and that was the best decision we made. Scans and pokes and all the nasty side-effects of the drugs were almost forgotten for a few days.  Sammy could barely stand or walk without support when we left the hospital, but she could not sit by and watch Vicky run around and play without her. We have video of them playing in our living room on Christmas Eve, throwing stuffed animals and laughing without a care in the world.

            Noah was a perfect match for a bone marrow transplant, and we moved to Sick Kids in Toronto, our luggage filled with hope. My mother moved into our house to take care of Noah and Victoria while we were away. The next four months dragged by in a blur. There were many hiccups along the way; a slight delay getting into Ronald McDonald House, hospital lockdowns during the SARS outbreak. Our only goals were getting Sammy healthy again and keeping her as happy as possible. The days were filled with hours of watching Barney and Veggie-Tale videos and stringing hundreds of beads.

            The transplant went well, and the side-effects were much less than many endured.  Hope flourished and our fears began to wane. I came home for a few days, purchasing two little pink bicycles complete with training wheels for the girls’ upcoming third birthday and stashed them in the garage. Sammy’s numbers were improving, and the cancer seemed to have been beaten.  Now it was just a waiting game before her immune system would be strong enough to be allowed to come home.

            But we were far from out of the woods. Despite all the infection controls and protocols in place to protect the immuno-compromised patients on our floor, Sammy came down with RSV (respiratory syncytial virus).  For most children, a respiratory infection would be of little threat, but for Sammy…

            For awhile, she was able to breathe with the assistance of an oxygen mask.  She could still sit up and play in her bed, but tired quicker and quicker each day.  Her O2 sats crashed one morning and she had to be intubated. Having spent the past 4 months in the transplant ward, we were all too aware of how terrifying a transfer to the critical care unit could be.  We saw too many names crossed off the big white patient board, after seeing them transferred to PICCU.  Her last few days were unbelievably hard.  Forcing ourselves to believe that she was aware of us squeezing her little hand, as the respirator hummed and beeped by her bed. With each day being on the machine, her chances of recovery diminished.

On May 18, our angel gained her wings. As I held her to my chest for the last time, I flashed back to the moment of her birth.  At that point I thought she had been taken from us before she took her first breath.  But she took that first breath and many more. Now three years later she took her last, as assisted as it was.  In the coming days and weeks, I realized that we had been given an extra three years of life with her, rather than had a full lifetime stolen from us. Three years of memories which we treasure more than anything. Losing Sammy changed everything for us, giving us perspective on what really matters and providing a worthwhile purpose in life. Sammy touched many hearts in her short life and continues to do so.

As difficult as it was, we could not let depression take us completely down; we had two other children who needed us.  I still needed more, something to focus on; something that could bring some meaning to our loss. I set my mind to figuring out why we had been given three years with Sammy and then have her taken in this manner.  Maybe that life extension was to motivate us to join the fight against childhood cancer. As a long-time motorcyclist with organizational skills and some event organizing background, the jump to a charity ride was not much of a leap.

            The following year we held our first fundraising ride, bringing in over $13,000 for Childhood Cancer Canada. Our second year doubled that bringing in $26,300. I knew I was on the right path; I had found my purpose on this crazy planet. After 19 years and over half a million dollars raised in Samantha’s memory, the R.O.C.K. has become a well-known and respected event in the motorcycle community.

            Advances in treatment are being made; we are so much closer than we were 20 years ago. Survival rates are increasing, but we have a long way to go.  We will get there. In the meantime, we will raise our pledges, we will ride our roads, and we will hug our kids. We will treasure our memories and be thankful for the health of our friends and family.

Thomas Family

Bob, Lori, Noah, Victoria,

& our angel above - Samantha

(pics to add)