It was going to be a trip of a lifetime — except it wasn’t
The year of Courtney’s sweet 16, she set off on a summer-long trip to the Caribbean with her dad and cousin. It was supposed to be the birthday trip of a lifetime — except it wasn’t. Most days, Courtney could barely get out of bed. In the span of two months, she’d had an ear infection, strep throat, and pneumonia. “All I wanted to do was sleep,” she recalled.
By the end of her trip, Courtney could barely keep food down. Her skin was yellow, her hands were shaky, and she was fainting daily.
When Courtney arrived home, her mom took her to the Emergency Department at The Hospital for Sick Children. They can both recall the kind, comforting nurses — Sonia, Sara and Lee — who settled Courtney into a room, took her vitals, and drew alarmingly dark, viscous blood from her vein. “I saw the concern on the nurses’ faces. Something was seriously wrong with me,” Courtney said. “I just wanted to go home.”
Soon after came the diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia, or AML. The treatment is aggressive, but often effective. Courtney wouldn’t be going home that night or for many other nights over the following year.
She was moved to the Haematology and Oncology floor — a place she would later associate with love and safety. But in those initial few hours, all she felt was shock.
The first procedure was a blood transfusion. Next came four gruelling cycles of chemotherapy. During the third cycle, Courtney became septic and experienced an allergic reaction to one of her many medications. The side-effects and setbacks were debilitating, but with her family, nurses, and oncologist, Dr. Oussama Abla, by her side, Courtney was able to persevere through all of it.
“Dr. Abla was there for me every step of the way,” said Courtney. “He drew me diagrams explaining everything. He answered every question. He kept me involved. He cared for me and about me. He even gave me a puzzle of the City of Toronto for Christmas. He treated me like a person and not a patient, and that made me feel like I could make it through.”
Courtney felt supported but deeply sad and lonely, too. In the prime of adolescence, she was fighting for her life and looked unrecognizable. “I had lost my hair and eyelashes,” she said. “My skin was dry and hyperpigmented, and there was this brown cast over my fingernails from all the treatment.”
Courtney’s mom jumped into action. She signed Courtney up for a program that teaches beauty techniques to help cancer patients manage the aesthetic side-effects of their treatment. It was this session that helped bring her future into sharp focus.
“For the first time since my diagnosis, I felt strong and beautiful, and I knew I could help other people feel the same,” said Courtney. To make good on her commitment to give back, she and her family started a charity called Courtney’s Quest to raise funds and awareness for childhood cancer.
Courtney focused on her charity and her health until she completed her treatment. She remembers the card her nurses signed on her final treatment day. Inside, it read: We hope we never see you again.
“It was the nicest thing anyone could have said to me,” she gushed.
Today, Courtney is a 24-year-old licensed makeup artist and nail and eyelash technician. She’s also in school full time, working toward a degree in Human Resources while growing her charity.
“There are real kids inside that building. Sick ones. They need me,” Courtney said. “I’m going to be here for them in every way I know how.”
Torstar, the Star’s parent company, is in a fundraising and educational partnership with The Hospital for Sick Children to help raise $1.5 billion for new facilities. This content was produced by SickKids as part of that partnership.