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  • Writer's pictureBruce Giddings

The Ride of His Life

Two-and-a-half year-old Leo broke into a huge grin when he first met Super Ute driver Jimmy Vernon just before his race at the Gold Coast 500 (GC500) in October.

The keen motorsport fan was especially delighted when he was shown the colourful decal featuring his own photographic image on the back of Jimmy's helmet.

“See, you’ll be coming around with me for the whole race,” Jimmy told him after the two had performed some pre-race checks together.

According to Leo’s mother, Jennifer Hamilton, from North Lakes, her boy couldn’t stop smiling for the rest of the day.

“He is now a definite convert to the Super Utes, probably for life,” she says.

The day at the GC500 was a huge day out for Leo, who has been either sick in hospital or incapacitated at home for the last two years, a period covering most of his young life.

During those two years, he has been forced to undergo multiple courses of life-saving chemotherapy and blood transfusions with all the attendant side effects, not to forget all the painful poking, prodding and testing that goes along with what is an extraordinary and major medical intervention.

“I am so grateful to them. It’s a debt our family can never repay.”

The chemotherapy was an absolute must for Leo, a vital treatment for cancer in his liver, which had also spread to his lungs.

Jennifer says the liver cancer showed up one day without warning.

“Leo made it to six months of age without a single sign of illness,” she said.

“He was a happy boy, always smiling and laughing, achieving all his life milestones as expected.”

Jennifer has a keen eye for medical matters, having qualified in veterinary medicine and practised for years as a Veterinary Surgeon, before becoming a full-time mum.

As soon as she noticed a firmness in part of Leo’s abdomen, Leo was off to the doctor, who sent him for a scan.

Jennifer vividly remembers the look on the radiographer’s face on checking the images that afternoon. It was a forced expression, an attempt to cover something. She received a call from Leo’s GP within an hour, who told her that Leo must go to the hospital that same day.

Leo immediately began chemotherapy and a battery of tests at the Queensland Children’s Hospital (QCH) at Southbank (formerly the Lady Cilento).

Jennifer’s days by Leo's bedside at the hospital blended into nights, and soon became weeks and months. Leo’s entire family were involved from the start, with Jennifer, Dad Marcos, and big brother Kai spending hundreds of hours at the hospital while trying to keep home life, school and work on track. It soon became a test for everybody, including members of the wider family, and friends.

Jennifer said that Leo remained true to himself through most of the unpleasant journey, laughing and smiling much of the time, despite enduring painful and energy-sapping treatments and many blood transfusions.

Jennifer says he ended up needing more than 30 blood transfusions of various kinds, and she is so grateful that his blood type is a common one because blood supplies for many blood types are in a precarious position in Queensland and across Australia.

The tedious chemo treatment gradually took effect, removing the growths in his lungs, and reducing the size of the tumour in his liver.

However, with the size reduced, doctors were now certain that the growth on Leo’s liver was entangled in the blood supply, meaning it could not be removed.

Leo’s only chance was to obtain a liver transplant.

During the six weeks of waiting for a donor, the chemo was discontinued, a requirement for a successful transplant but also a risk for a recurrence of the cancer, while the wait was on.

Leo’s cancer markers spiked again after the first three weeks of chemotherapy, so he was treated again with a different type of drug to reduce the risk of resistance. The liver transplant would not be performed if there were malignancies anywhere in the body.

Once the markers fell again three weeks later, he was taken off chemotherapy and another waiting period began.

Jennifer’s mind entertained a torrent of awful thoughts at this stage. She found herself mentally preparing for a peaceful end of life for her son. Yet she was desperate to fight for her boy’s life at the same time.

Other thoughts continued to intrude into Jennifer’s mind, such as the certain knowledge that a new liver for Leo meant that someone else’s life had been extinguished, a life support switched off.

Jennifer says many tears were shed as the weeks of uncertainty tested Jennifer, Marcos, Kai and the whole family.

Then one Sunday afternoon, as the family were sitting in their lounge room at North Lakes watching a superhero movie together, Jennifer’s phone rang.

“We have a liver for Leo,” the doctor told Jennifer. “He needs to come in now.”

Jennifer says she forgot to pack her toothbrush and other essentials in her rush to take her boy to the hospital.

It was two o’clock in the morning when Jennifer carried Leo into the operating theatre, singing to him as she went, as she had done many times before for various less risky procedures. She carefully laid him on the operating table as he was anaesthetised in her arms. She tried to remain strong as she walked out, leaving her boy in the care of the liver transplant team.

Seven hours later the phone rang and a doctor said, “I’ll meet you downstairs.”

Leo’s transplant operation had been a success.

Jennifer has the highest praise for Dr Peter Hodgkinson and the members of his liver transplant team. The team, who are on call 24/7, “is absolutely incredible,” she says.

“They held our hand through the whole process, all our ups and downs. We feel so lucky they have been there for us.”

Jennifer says she feels emotional whenever she thinks about the family that needed to give the approval to donate the liver.

“It’s heartbreaking for them. They’ve lost somebody, and out of that, our family has had a win.

“I am so grateful to them. It’s a debt our family can never repay.”

Leo lives a carefree life now and is enjoying doing things other kids do, like going for a swim, something he couldn't do while the tubes were in. He remains on oral medications twice a day, but that will become less over time.

He has suffered a little hearing loss due to chemo side effects, and wears two discreet hearing aids.

Leo is unaware of how precarious his health has been and is full of energy now, catching up on some of the activities he missed out on for two years. He loves playing with his collection of toy race cars and is ecstatic to be at home with his mum, dad and big brother Kai. He remains a big fan of Jimmy Vernon and the Super Utes.


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