Cancer survivor, 10, has legacy at rehab centre
Published Sunday, February 25, 2007 9:56AM EST
TORONTO - Lena McNeill places the three long "bravery bead" necklaces she's made over the last year on her neck, but quickly takes them off.
"They're too heavy," the 10-year-old McNeill laughs as she sits in the physiotherapy studio at Bloorview Kids Rehab in Toronto.
"But I could still add some more beads to this one," she says as she fingers a half-finished necklace, each bead representing her triumph over one of the many traumas she's had to endure.
She started this latest necklace two months ago, when she first came to Canada's largest rehab hospital for children. Now, there's only one more bead to add: a big smiley-faced one to mark her release.
After months of rehabilitation therapy at Bloorview Kids Rehab, and a year of intense treatment for osteosarcoma - the same bone cancer that robbed Terry Fox of his leg - McNeill is finally going home.
"I am going out of here walking, and not on a wheelchair like I came in December," says McNeill, from Newtonville, Ont.
"I am so proud of what I have been through."
Her necklaces tell the story: purple beads for physiotherapy, translucent yellow ones for hair loss, a white snowman to represent blood draws.
A large blue one represents the 12-hour surgery that replaced much of the bone in her right leg with a large metal rod that runs from her thigh to the top of her ankle.
"I had to get a custom-made leg because I was in between sizes," she says, matter-of-factly. "So part of my leg is from America, England, Ireland and Scotland. It's an international leg."
But while the limb-saving surgery left her leg intact, it also left her weak and confined to a wheelchair.
"Most adults can't go through what Lena has gone through," says Cathy McNeill, Lena's mom, who has been staying with her at Bloorview for the last two months.
"The amazing thing is that even after all of this, she is still smiling."
She owes a lot of her strength to the necklaces, Cathy adds.
"Through the whole process, Lena has really counted on her beads to motivate her. Sometimes before a painful procedure, she would ask me to get her the beads and add it to her necklace."
Lena came across the bravery beads while getting cancer treatment at the Hospital for Sick Children, where the child life program has been using the bead therapy for a number of years.
When she got to Bloorview Kids Rehab, she was shocked to learn they didn't have a similar program. "I asked for a bead after my physiotherapy, and they were, like, 'What's a bead for?"'
So, with the help of Michelle Bernardi, the child life specialist at Bloorview, Lena pitched the idea to her classmates at the rehab centre, the "big cheeses," the nurses and the staff.
"I told my class about it, and they thought it was a super great idea and they wanted to start right away," Lena says. "I told them that it's kind of like a souvenir of your treatment."
Bernardi says that she knows that for most of the kids, the beads will be more than just a souvenir.
"More than anything, the beads are an incredible source of motivation for the kids," she says.
"Many of these children have giant goals like learning how to walk or how to speak again, and it can take a long, long time. The beads help break the goal down into smaller goals, so they can see that they are making achievements every day."
While the program has been approved, the rehab centre is still hoping to get corporate funding. The official launch date for the program is slated for April, and Lena says she will be back for the kickoff.
"I heard there might be a Lena bead," she says, giggling. "Now I really know that nothing is impossible."