When a beaming Dallas (‘DJ’) MacKay climbed onto his Granddad’s tractor on a summer family holiday in New Zealand recently, it was the realisation of a wish the brave little boy made at a very dark and scary time.
DJ (6) had been undergoing treatment for ALL since he was diagnosed in mid-2011.
When his mum offered DJ a special wish to look forward to after his treatment, he could have asked for toys. Or even a trip to Disneyland. But all DJ wanted was to ride on his Koro’s tractor. (‘Koro’ is the Maori word for granddad – DJ’s mum, Natasha, is a New Zealander.)
DJ lives in Darwin with his mum, dad Dallas senior, sister Natarlia and his brothers, Pearce and Jake.
When the family was interviewed for this story, they were about to fly out to the land of the long white cloud on a happy holiday to compensate, somewhat, for the storms they have weathered since blood cancer entered their lives.
DJ’s ALL journey began in June 2011, when he fell on some rocks while fishing with his Dad and was left with a bad limp.
After seeing several different doctors and having two x-rays, the injury was said to be soft tissue damage.
Seven weeks later and still limping, DJ fell and reinjured the same leg.
Rushed to Royal Darwin Hospital, DJ had another x-ray and ultrasound. Again, nothing serious was identified. Yet the courageous little boy could no longer bear any weight on his leg.
Two weeks later DJ finally got an appointment with a children’s orthopaedic specialist.
“The specialist diagnosed him with a broken right tibia,” said Natasha. “He was then placed in a full leg cast for four weeks.”
During these four weeks, DJ suffered bad gastro. Natasha, heavily pregnant with her third child at the time, found it hard lifting him and taking him to the toilet many
times through the night.
After four weeks, the cast came off – but by then the pain had moved to DJ’s ankle. Tears would come each painful time he tried to bear weight on it.
“We were advised by the physiotherapist to push him to walk and that he was ‘being a bit of a sook’,” said Natasha. “This was extremely frustrating as we were being told that nothing was wrong, yet our five year-old was in tears telling us he wasn’t lying and was in real pain.”
DJ then began to mimic symptoms of anaemia. He had yellow swollen eyelids, red spots on his gums and in his eyes, and bruises all over his body. He was pale and had sores around his mouth. At nights he averaged a temperature of 38 degrees and sweated excessively. He lost his appetite and had trouble swallowing food. He was lethargic and always sleepy.
Extremely concerned, Natasha took him to see a different GP.
“This doctor was alarmed at DJ’s symptoms and measured an enlarged spleen of five centimetres,” she said. “He advised us to head straight to the hospital and have bloods taken.”
Six hours later, a paediatrician revealed the crushing news – there were leukaemic cells present. DJ needed to be in Adelaide within 24 hours to start intense chemotherapy at the Women’s and Children Hospital. He was given two blood transfusions straight away.
“We were devastated. We felt like I had been hit by a bus,” said Natasha. “This was a foreign disease to us and we knew very little about it.
“Immediately you think the worst is going to happen. I questioned: ‘Why my baby?’. ‘Why DJ?’ I felt numb as the registrar stood there trying to comfort us.
“Thoughts started rushing through my mind: ‘Where would we stay in Adelaide?’, ‘How are we going to cope with this and a new baby about to come into the world?’.
“So many things were racing through my mind... and there was little DJ lying in the hospital bed, with no idea of what was coming.”
The next day DJ and Dallas were taken by Care Flight to Adelaide. Saying goodbye to her boys was incredibly hard for Natasha. At the time she was 37 weeks pregnant and unable to fly.
“I watched them drive off and broke down,” she said. “Poor little Natarlia stood there quietly, not understanding what was happening, but she knew it was bad. She was equally upset to see them go. I felt sick and knew my unborn baby could feel my stress.”
Two days later Natasha asked her obstetrician to induce her baby, three weeks early.
“DJ was in Adelaide having a bone marrow biopsy lumbar puncture and getting his port put in his chest, while I was in Darwin in labour,” she said. “I found it incredibly hard to bring my mind away from DJ and concentrate on my job at hand, giving birth safely.”
After the toughest of Natasha’s three deliveries, healthy little Pearce arrived without complications. Just a week later, Natasha was on a plane to Adelaide with three year-old Natarlia and her newborn son.
Immense relief came as the family was reunited in Adelaide – but the future was daunting.
DJ would undergo eight months of intense chemotherapy and 15 days of radiotherapy.
At the beginning of his treatment he was “terrified” of all the nurses and doctors and would scream at the sight of them coming close to him.
"Having his port accessed and de-accessed was incredibly stressful for all,” said Natasha. “We had to hold DJ down while the nurses put the needle in.
“Not only had DJ been whisked away from his home overnight, but his worst nightmare of having a needle was happening – every day – and he had no real idea why.”
As his treatment progressed, DJ began to grow stress lines on his finger nails, his hair started falling out and he gained lots of weight due to steroids treatment. The steroids also made DJ angry and frustrated and he would use the toilet many times a night (but, proudly, never once wetting his bed).
Somewhere along the way, DJ began to accept the fact that the friendly nurses and doctors were there to help him. A child psychologist provided some tips on how Natasha and Dallas could help their son cope better with needles and finger pricks.
“While he still didn’t like having the procedures, he would reluctantly lie still and let them do what they needed to,” said Natasha. “We taught him to grit his teeth and growl like a bear instead of letting out his high pitched scream.
“The pain he has endured breaks my heart but I know it has made him the little hero he is today.”
Natasha says she will be “eternally grateful” to the amazing medical people at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital who cared for her son. She is also thankful for the support of organisations including the Leukaemia Foundation, which supported the family with food and petrol vouchers during their time in Adelaide and the cost of a hire car during a return trip for DJ to have some tests.
In June 2012 the family relocated back to Darwin, where DJ began maintenance treatment, an oral form of chemo. His initial leg injury has fully recovered and he is now able to run around and play with his sister and little brother (and now another little brother, Jake, who arrived in June 2013!)
Once afraid of the water, DJ has developed a keen interest in swimming since returning to Darwin. The Leukaemia Foundation recently organised a month of swimming lessons for DJ to encourage his enthusiasm.
DJ’s treatment plan will continue until September 2013 and, in a moving full circle, will finish on the day of baby Pearce’s second birthday.
“His journey is far from over and he will have bloods taken every fortnight here and there will be three monthly visits back to Adelaide for check-ups,” said Natasha. “But we now treasure every day with our children and take nothing for granted.
“I try not to dwell on what may come in the future, but what is here in our present.”
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