Last November, Nelson mum Sarah Kerby was frantically packing a bag to fly to Starship children's Hospital in Auckland, preparing to say goodbye to her precious preschooler William.
Sarah pulled her 10-year-old son Baillie out of school to head to his brother's bedside, where William lay in a coma, his little body double its size from fluid. Following stem cell treatment and high-dose chemotherapy to treat aggressive cancer, the then-four-year-old had developed neutropenic sepsis, which Sarah was told would probably kill him.
Miraculously, however, brave young William is still alive, healthy and thriving. As well as surprising doctors and nurses at Starship with his remarkable recovery from sepsis, the car-loving kid was also declared cancer-free in August.
"Getting the all-clear was unbelievable and surreal!" marvels Sarah, 32, whose son had a 50% chance of surviving metastatic neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that appeared as a 12cm lump on his adrenal gland.
"When you get a diagnosis, you feel like the world carries on around you and you're stuck in one spot, waiting for the worst but hoping for the best. It was absolutely the best news."
William first showed signs of being unwell in February 2022, when he started getting fevers and cold-like symptoms, accompanied by sore legs. While outdoors-loving Sarah and her partner of three years, Sam Phillips, 33, put his aching legs down to a 10km walk they'd just done across the Abel Tasman, she took William to the doctor when the pain didn't subside.
"He wouldn't walk, and was sneezy and snotty," recalls Sarah, who works as a communications advisor and MP support for Parliament. "The doctor said it was an autoimmune issue that'd go away, then said it was an ear infection. Two weeks later, Will went to A&E and had a blood test. They thought he might have leukaemia."
Sarah went into shock but held on to hope when she was told treatment for leukaemia is advanced these days and that after three years of intensive therapy, there'd be a 90% survival rate. However, after a CT scan exposed a massive tumour on William's adrenal gland, he was flown to Christchurch Hospital.
He immediately started chemotherapy for neuro-blastoma, which five children are diagnosed with each year in New Zealand.
"I remember thinking, 'Why William?' But then also, 'Why not William?'" shares Sarah, who set up the Nelson branch of Bellyful – a charity that delivers free cooked meals to vulnerable whanau with babies or young children – in 2018. In a twist of fate, the non-profit was there for her family during William's gruelling treatment.
Sarah admits she was terrified for William but also worried about losing her job, relationship and the house she had just moved into. When William developed neutropenic sepsis and fell into a coma for three weeks, she was told twice her son would probably die. Fortunately, with the "tremendous" support of her partner Sam, as well as an influx of help from their Nelson community, the family got through it.
"It was awful because he was so critical," says Sarah.
"I felt numb and like I was hovering above myself, just watching. Then on his fifth birthday, he just started coming right again. Two days later, he was sitting up in bed watching a movie and he was home for Christmas!"
Six months of chemotherapy drastically shrunk the tumour. Since it worked so well, William was able to have keyhole surgery to remove what was remaining, which meant he avoided having a large scar across his torso.
"From the start, we called the cancer a naughty lump that was making him sick, which was something he could visualise and understand," explains Sarah. "We told Will he needed special medicine to make the lump smaller, so it'd stop making him sick.
I never wanted to lie to him and he knew he was very sick, but I don't think he ever knew he was so close to death."
Sarah credits blood donations for helping to save her boy's life, since both his healthy and unhealthy blood cells were destroyed by chemotherapy. William had around 120 transfusions, all thanks to generous Kiwis.
"You could see such a difference in him," Sarah tells. "His colour changed and his energy levels perked up immediately. I don't think he'd be here without them because it gave his body that boost and the goods to heal."
In February this year, William completed radiation and a few months of oral chemo, before his latest tests showed the cancer had gone. Having started school in August, William now wants to become a surgeon or nurse when he's older, so he can help people.
Sarah smiles, "We're going to throw what Will calls his 'happy no-cancer birthday' – a great big party – to celebrate and we'll invite everyone who has been there for us."
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