Body

Meet Caleb Wright - the 12-year-old brain cancer sufferer bringing laughter to other sick kids

''With the damage to Caleb’s brain, he has trouble remembering day-to-day things, but when he finds something hilarious, he’ll remember it,'' says his mum.

By Cloe Willetts
When it comes to battling brain cancer, Caleb Wright has his own special medicine. "I like toilet and butt jokes – everything like that," says the Christchurch lad, who is on a mission to create New Zealand's best joke book with witty puns and cheeky potty humour.
With help from the Child Cancer Foundation, the 12-year-old is gathering 500 of the best jokes from the Kiwi public in the hope of making other kids in hospital smile.
"I'm most happy telling jokes and I have a favourite," declares Caleb. "Why did the baker have brown hands? Because he kneaded a poo!"
For Caleb's family, the sound of him rattling off jokes his brain works hard to remember is a blessing. Three years ago, they almost lost their martial arts-loving eldest child after he was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
"With the damage to Caleb's brain, he has trouble remembering day-to-day things, but when he finds something hilarious, he'll remember it," says his mum Jennie, 34.
Caleb was a high-achieving student when he started getting headaches three years ago, followed by nausea, sore legs and blurred vision. He slept whole days and wouldn't play outside with his brother.
"He didn't even want to watch TV," recalls Jennie.
"I told the doctor, 'This isn't my child any more.'"
Jennie and her hubby Jeremy – who looks after Caleb full-time while she works as an office manager – were told their son had a lump in his brain and needed emergency surgery. Five days after the biopsy, they were told to fly to Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital because the lump was a tumour.
"They said not to Google the name of the cancer, teratoma, and we didn't," tells Jennie, also mother to Noah, 10, and Brooke, nine.
"But members of our family did and you sort of knew it was bad because we were flooded with visitors."
The MRI that picked up the tumour in 2016.
To fill the long hours in hospital, Jennie brought joke books for Caleb, who recited his top toilet-themed anecdotes to doctors and nurses.
"It helped us get through those hard days and our favourite nurses always came back with their own jokes, which he would rate."
Humour became a coping mechanism for Caleb, whose tumour was wrapped around his brain stem. When a heartbroken Jennie and Jeremy, 33, were told Caleb only had two weeks to live
without risky surgery, they agreed to the operation.
Three hours into Caleb's estimated 12-hour procedure, Jennie received a call from a private number.
"It was the surgeon, asking where we were and telling us to get to the hospital right away. He said, 'Come to level seven,' and hung up."
The parents arrived to an empty recovery room. "We sat down and both surgeons had tears streaming down their faces," she remembers. "They said they'd removed 80% of the tumour, but out of nowhere, Caleb suffered a large brain bleed and they couldn't stop it."
Sitting up for the first time after being in a coma.
Through tears, Jennie recalls being told she had to say goodbye to her precious son, who would remain on life support until the morning. "I just cried and Jeremy asked when we could see him."
Around Caleb's hospital bed, his siblings stuck up pictures they'd drawn. The family played his favourite Michael Jackson songs and held his hand.
They even told jokes in the hope he was listening.
When the time came to switch off his machines, the nurse began slowly rousing him and Jennie felt his hand pull out of hers.
"I sat up startled!" Jennie tells. "Then he turned his head, put his hands beside his face and vomited. He was instantly put back into a coma because if he was brain-dead, he couldn't have reflexed that way."
More surgery is to come, but Caleb's got the best support crew in parents Jeremy and Jennie, siblings Noah and Brooke, and rabbit Lucky.
Over the next few weeks, Caleb had more operations and again survived near death. His mum smiles, "Doctors realised they weren't just saving Caleb's life any more – they were saving the quality of it."
Five months after his first surgery – having relearnt to smile, talk, walk and complete simple tasks like brushing his teeth – Caleb was sent home.
"He pushed so hard in rehab that he'd often be sick, while knowing he still had a tumour in his head," says his mother proudly. "His therapist said they wished they could bottle his attitude!"
Caleb cracks his mother up every chance he can get.
Caleb needed the same life-threatening surgery to remove the growth two months later, but this time, it was a success. For two years, the brave lad was tumour-free, joining school for short mornings and getting back into martial arts.
But a check-up last October showed their battle was far from over, with the cancer returning. It had come back and a new nodule formed.
"They'll wait until it grows to a size where it's an issue and then they'll take it back as far as they can," explains Jennie. "The surgeon said if he has to cut away at it for the rest of his career, he will."
According to Caleb's family, their quirky "motor-mouth" is the funniest he's ever been.
"Parts of Caleb's brain operate properly and others don't," says Jennie. "Therefore, he's higher functioning in areas, including the humour and quick-wittedness part of him. He just loves making people laugh and is such a gorgeous kid."
Suddenly, the room is filled with laughter as Caleb chimes in with another joke. "Why does it smell in autumn?" he asks excitedly. "Because the leaves blow off!"

read more from