This Halloween is going to be different for everyone, maybe even the scariest one ever faced, says Virgil resident Thea Wall.
She is referring to the danger of COVID, and how families will handle Halloween during a pandemic, but at this time of year, she and the Wall family are reminded of a Halloween many years ago, when they faced a far more frightening situation.
Thea’s mother Cathy says she loves the tradition of Halloween, the decorating, trick or treating, and most of all, “the smiles on the faces of youngsters who come to the door. I look forward to that more than anything every year.”
This year, in order to avoid the risks associated with kids going door to door, the Walls have come up with a different way to celebrate one of their favourite times of year.
Thea and Cathy are encouraging local families and friends who have decided not to participate in a typical Halloween to instead donate the money they would spend on the celebration to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. That’s what the Wall family is doing, in recognition of the October day 14 years ago, when a phone call from the hospital saved Thea’s life.
When Thea and her brother Brandon were youngsters, growing up in Virgil in a neighbourhood of families, Cathy loved to have the local kids come to the house for pizza before they headed out in their costumes. They would come back to the house throughout the evening when their bags were full and needed emptying, before going off to knock on more doors.
The Wall house was always decorated to the hilt, inside and out, a tradition Cathy began even before she and husband Richard had kids, she says.
Cathy’s childhood was not the easiest, she relates. Her mother was just 15 when Cathy was born, she grew up “surrounded by negativity,” and holidays were not the happy occasion they were for other families. She determined when she was quite young that if she was ever fortunate enough to have her own children, their childhood would be very different than it was for her, and she would be the best mother she could be. That has always meant going all out on all the holidays, making each a festive, magical occasion for her kids.
She has decorated their Frontier home, as usual, this year, and loves seeing the smiles it brings to adults and kids as they walk by.
But the decision to make a donation to SickKids, she says, is Thea’s story to tell, although her struggle is one none of the family will forget.
“Halloween always meant a neighbourhood party at the Walls,” recalls Thea. “The kids came, and the parents, Dad’s generation that he grew up with, they would all stop by. It was one of the best holidays for us.”
But then came the year that it all changed for the Wall family.
At just 13 years old, Thea, now 27, was in McMaster Children’s Hospital that October, 2006, being treated for anorexia. She was extremely ill, having been admitted 10 weeks earlier, in August. In less than six months, she had gone from being a healthy teenager to a 65-pound skeleton.
She was admitted at 68 pounds, and instead of gaining weight, she lost a few pounds more.
Because of the nature of anorexia, she didn’t want to be in the hospital, didn’t believe she needed to be there, and was angry at her parents for putting her there, she says.
Cathy describes a nightmarish experience, watching the life drain out of her daughter, with Thea resisting and fighting off nurses as they tried to force her to eat. The hospital was really not equipped, at that time, to help kids like Thea, says Cathy.
Thea remembers all the tricks patients such as herself learned to avoid eating. She recalls being delighted when she heard she was finally being discharged, because the hospital couldn’t do any more to help her.
“I thought, I get to go home, I knew they couldn’t make me eat, that I would relapse, and at the time, I thought it was a good thing.”
Her parents were waiting to hear that there was a bed available for Thea at SickKids, but at the same time, they were arranging to send her to a centre in Arizona that specialized in treatment for anorexia. Thea knew it was a matter of which came first, and was hoping it would be SickKids, because it was closer to home.
She was home for about a week before the phone call came, a few days before Halloween, that was to be her salvation.
“It was a really pivotal week for me,” she says.
She was still losing weight, and when she was discharged from McMaster, it seemed she was being sent home to see her family for what might have been the last time, as they waited for a bed somewhere, or as she says, “to run out of time.”
SickKids, she has no doubt, saved her life.
“They understood. They provide everything you need. This is not a black and white disease, it’s different for everyone. I didn’t understand how sick I was. I wasn’t allowed to walk for three weeks after I was admitted, I was wheel-chaired everywhere. For me it became real while I was there, and I knew they were going to make it better, not worse.”
Thea says she had carried a lot of anger at her parents for forcing the hospital on her, but “I came to understand it wasn’t my parents, that they were doing what they did out of love. The hospital provided counselling for me, for my parents, and for all of us together. At some point it started to click, to come together, and I began to understand.”
She is extremely grateful to have had that opportunity, and to have had a bed in the hospital when she needed it. She wants the same for others who might need it, she says.
That’s the incentive behind her plea for donations to SickKids, which is undergoing a massive expansion for a new building beside the existing hospital, giving them more beds to help children like Thea.
“Every dollar is a step closer for another child to recovery. Maybe they’ll see another birthday, Halloween or Christmas because of you. Maybe just another day with their families to fight,” she says on the GoFundMe page she has set up to collect donations.
“To strive for a world-class hospital is great, but to strive for a hospital of miracles is greater,” she says. “To some families it’s a journey that never ends, while others, one that is never won. SickKids provides families with hope, whose options and time are running thin. The care they provide for kids is beyond medicine, it’s love and laughter, it’s the lengths they go to ensure every day is a day closer to a cure.”
Thea’s journey to health ended after two and a half gruelling months in the hospital, including another relapse, and continuing as an outpatient until she turned 18.
“I can say my battle was won the day I was admitted.”
Thea’s GoFundMe page, notl4sickkids, raised almost $2,000 toward her $10,000 goal in the first 24 hours online.
To donate, visit https://ca.gofundme.com/f/notl4sickkids