Because of COVID restrictions and the fear of infection, the family members had to separate.
Gilbert, who was two and a half at the time, isolated at home with his father JG, while his mother Martie stayed in the cancer unit at Auckland’s Starship Hospital with Kiaan.
At the start of last year, Kiaan was facing increasing health issues and was in and out of hospital with ongoing infections. Tests established that his white blood cell count had dropped to worrying levels and doctors agreed a bone marrow transplant was his only chance of survival.
Gilbert was identified as a perfect donor match and in August last year, doctors performed a transplant with Gilbert as the donor.
“It was a harrowing thing for him to go through,” says Martie. “Medically and ethically it was a tough decision for us to make, but Gilbert seemed to cope with it really well at the time. He used to tell everyone he had super-hero blood!”
Kiaan was eventually discharged, but there were still twice-daily hospital visits and endless rounds of follow-up treatments.
“It was then that Gilbert started acting up,” says Martie. “He’d had to grow up and transition to big brother so quickly with me largely absent from his life up to that point. There were massive tantrums and behavioural issues. It wasn’t a happy time.”
It forced Martie and JG to think about the impact that Kiaan’s illness was having on the whole family.
“In a situation like this, everyone seems to get counselling, apart from the siblings who’ve had to put up with so much. They tend to go relatively unnoticed while parents are dealing with a very sick child,” says Martie. “It divides families – and we didn’t want that happening to ours.”
Martie saw a counsellor at Starship who told her about the work that Kenzie’s Gift does in helping young Kiwis and their whānau affected by serious illness or grief. Connections were made, and Gilbert started weekly sessions with psychotherapist Nicola Jackson, who is an Auckland-based therapist for Kenzie’s Gift.
“The service offered by Kenzie’s Gift was like a lifeline,” says Martie. “All our prayers were answered. It was such a relief to be able to use professional help to try and understand what Gilbert was going through.”
Nicole used psychodynamic psychotherapy to observe and analyse Gilbert’s responses, while at the same time giving him the space to just be himself.
She also created a book about his life, which encouraged him to express his feelings.
“I don’t know how people get through this on their own,” says Martie. “We’ve been given this incredible support, and the resources to better understand what Gilbert’s going through.
“It’s a wonderful gift that they’ve given us.”
Gilbert has recently finished his sessions and although he’s happy to be back at his preschool in Sylvia Park, he still struggles a bit, says Martie.
“Everything he knew was taken away from him,” she says. “All his constants were gone.
“He’s been through a lot of trauma and disruption and it’s only now that life is taking on a bit more normalcy.”
Martie says the therapy has helped the whole family come to terms with the choices they had to make around Kiaan’s health – choices that they struggled with at the time.
“We needed assurance that we were doing the right thing,” says Martie. “And that the feelings that we were all experiencing were quite normal.”
Kiaan has just turned two and it’s now almost a year since his life-saving transplant.
“He’s surprised everyone with how well he’s doing,” says Martie. “He’s off his meds and is flourishing. We’ve all been blown away by his progress.”
Meanwhile, Martie, who has a Masters in Anatomy from her native South Africa and used to work in medical research, has opted for a career change. In between caring for her boys and juggling ongoing medical appointments, she’s studying Quantity Surveying at Open Polytech.
“I’ve always loved numbers and financial management, so it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.
“There’s one thing that Kiaan’s experience has taught us – that life is precious and things can change so quickly. We need to do things that we love.”