Real Life

Remembering the angel Gabby Devine

We honour Gabby Devine, the teen who lit up Starship Hospital in her final days.
Gabby Devine

We pay tribute to Taranaki teen Gabby Devine, who the Weekly had the privilege of meeting just a few months ago. Sadly, Gabby passed away on May 16 after an ongoing battle with bone cancer. This is the story of a very special day we spent with Gabby and her father Roland at Starship Hospital.

Little Frank Meads won’t stop crying. The two-and -a-half-year-old, who was charging around Ronald McDonald House at Starship Children’s Health hospital only moments ago, has inexplicably burst into a flood of tears. His brothers, Johannes (5) and Charlie (4) are doing their best to cheer him up, while his exhausted parents, Tracey and Jarod, coo and rock their son to try to soothe him and avoid waking their youngest boy, nine-month-old Archie.

In comes Gabby Devine, a fellow Starship patient, carrying a brightly-coloured pen with a whirring plastic fan on the end. “Hey, Frank, look at this!” she says, switching on the fan and waving it in front of the toddler’s eyes. In an instant, the crying ceases. Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia last February, Frank has been a regular at Starship. He first underwent full-time chemotherapy, before suffering a relapse in late July and later having a bone marrow transplant.

Gabby’s boredome boxes have brought immense joy to young patients like Frank Meads and their families, who are living in tough circumstances.

Gabby and Frank have only known each other a little while, but no-one can calm the toddler the way 13-year-old Gabby can. The bubbly teen is proving to be a godsend not only for the Meads, but other parents with children at Starship, through her Starlit Hope project.

Gabby knows all too well what it’s like to be confined within the four walls of the Auckland hospital. She was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, in 2013 and spent more than half that year at Starship. Inspired by her experiences, Gabby began creating special “boredom boxes” as part of the project.

“Whenever she went into hospital, her mum would make her an activity bag for each day of the week,” her father Roland Devine explains.

“She was always excited about the next day, to find out what the next gift would be. Some of the kids at Starship will spend all year here, so Gabby’s boredom boxes give them something to look forward to, and keep their minds off the treatment.”

Taranaki-based Gabby began giving out activity bags in the children’s ward at New Plymouth hospital, later expanding to Starship when she was based there. Under the title Starlit Hope, she’s organised Easter baskets, Mother’s Day gift hampers and Christmas breakfasts.

She has also gifted the staff small presents of thanks.

“The nurses just love her,” Roland tells. “They deal with a lot, so it’s nice to be able to do something for them.”

Gabby is an inspiration to her parents, braving her illness and the side effects associated with her treatment to make sure she has a smile on her face for other children. But life has been anything but easy for the Devine family.Gabby’s diagnosis came only two days into the school year, when a persistent cough was giving her parents cause for concern. After an X-ray showed up what looked like fluid in the lungs, she had a CT scan which revealed cancer in her chest.

Sarah and Roland hope that others will take up Gabby’s mantle by helping people in their communities in her honour. They are also collecting donations on behalf of Starlit Hope.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing,” Roland reveals. “It should have been picked up earlier, but there’s nothing we can do about that now.”

Gabby underwent chemotherapy and radiation to shrink the tumour, before going into surgery to have it removed. The surgeons took four ribs, which has since resulted in scoliosis, an S-shaped spine, as well as a quarter of her lung. Gabby was given the all-clear and used her time recovering to set up Starlit Hope.

But much to her parents’ dismay, the cancer came back in August last year. “There are so many complications,” explains Roland. “Cancer is one thing, but then there’s chemo and the drugs they give her.”

Mum Sarah is on hand to help get the boredom boxes ready for the kids. But Gabby is the creative brains behind the operation and Roland is thrilled to see the effect she’s had on families at Starship.

“She wants to be a play specialist, the kind they have on the wards, when she grows up,” Roland says. “She’s always been good with kids.”

How to take part

Sarah and Roland are keeping Gabby’s legacy alive through Starlit Hope and by encouraging others to complete random acts of kindness. Visit the Starlit Hope Facebook page for more information here.

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