Okanagan family shares story of son’s cancer recovery to encourage blood donation

Vernon Beads of Courage donor Tara Steck offers Finlay Ritson one of her signature beads, March 2020. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Finlay Ritson was diagnosed with a cancer of the blood and bone marrow in 2013, when he was two years old. Parents Erin and Gord Ritson hope the story of his recovery will encourage others to donate blood. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Finlay Ritson in hospital, July 2014. (Contributed)

Gord and Erin Ritson know the true value of donated blood. They see it every day in their nine-year-old son, Finlay, whose cancer recovery would not have been possible without a steady stream of transfusions.

After moving to Vernon in May 2019, Erin attempted to donate blood herself as a way of paying forward the gift previous donors had given Finlay, but ultimately found out she and her husband were ineligible.

They decided to do the next best thing: share Fin’s story with the hope of inspiring others to donate.

“They go through so much blood through cancer. So much blood. Because their bodies burn it, their immune systems are so low. It’s what keeps them alive,” Erin said.

The message becomes more paramount in light of COVID-19. In March Canadian Blood Services warned of a possible blood shortage as a result of the pandemic.

Finlay was diagnosed in 2013 at age two with acute lymphoblastic leukemia—a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. Gord was then working in the British Army and was posted in Germany, where Finlay underwent 16 months of intensive chemotherapy.

“It was a pretty horrendous time with a great number of complications and infections,” Erin said.

In May 2014 the Ritsons travelled to Florida to celebrate the end of Finlay’s chemotherapy treatment. Unfortunately, one month later as they were returning to Germany, the family suffered some surprising news.

“We hadn’t even unpacked when a routine test came back showing Finlay had relapsed,” Gord said.

The family left Germany and went back to the U.K. for a second opinion. They soon found out the cancer cells had returned, and Fin had to restart with an even more intensive chemotherapy.

In October 2014 Finlay underwent a bone marrow transplant followed by three months of sterile isolation. A few months later, another setback: his body was trying to reject the transplant, prompting need for a heavy dose of steroid treatment and some experimental medication.

READ MORE: ‘Hold our line’: 29 new cases of COVID-19 announced in B.C.

WATCH: How doctors in Canada will decide who lives and dies if pandemic worsens

In the summer of 2015 Finlay finally seemed to be in the clear and was even going back to school when his recovery took another twist. Due to a rare virus, Finlay’s kidneys stopped functioning. He was put on hemodialysis, a line straight to his heart, for four hours a day, three times a week in hospital.

“We were told he was going to be like this forever, really,” Gord said.

But remarkably, Fin’s kidneys decided they weren’t going to give up completely, and started showing signs of recovery.

“The two consultants told us this was basically impossible.”

Finlay now has a 37 per cent kidney function – up from around 5 per cent at his lowest point.

“At the moment he’s really healthy, his blood work’s all really stable and has been for a few years now,” Gord said. “If you saw him now you wouldn’t know any different.”

Gayle Voyer, Canadian Blood Services territory manager for Kelowna, was there when the Ritsons attempted (unsuccessfully) to donate blood, and encouraged them to spread awareness instead.

“Our message doesn’t change, as there is always a constant need for blood,” Voyer said.

As a first step towards donating, Voyer encourages people to go to blood.ca to check their eligibility, as Canadian Blood Services updates its eligibility requirements constantly.

“I speak to a lot of donors who don’t think they’re eligible and it turns out they are.”

Voyer says if you don’t know your blood type, that’s no reason to avoid coming in to donate.

“Often people think they have to know their blood type to donate, but in fact they don’t they actually find out their blood type until after they donate for the first time.”

Another common misconception relates to bone marrow donations, which are now far less invasive than they’re often thought to be. Rarely are people asked to donate from the bone marrow itself.

Far more often, bone marrow can be restored using stem cells collected from blood, meaning a donation requires no surgery.

“Everybody is needed because blood does have an expiry date. So if you’re healthy, you’re feeling good and you’re willing, then we ask you to come out to any of our donation centres,” Voyer said.

To enable physical distancing during COVID-19, donors must book an appointment before going to a donor centre.

Over the course of his years of treatment, Finlay endured six heart operations, numerous Hickman lines and underwent seemingly countless medical procedures.

Helping to count those individual steps in a child’s journey to recovery is Beads of Courage, an Arizona-based charity with the goal of integrating arts into medicine. Children receive beads signifying different procedures each time they undergo treatment.

Finlay’s collection of well over 1,000 beads are kept on a strand, which he once brought to school to show his classmates.

“I bet if everyone in the class held it, it would probably go around the whole class,” he said.

Vernon’s Tara Steck donates her homemade glass beads to the program. Upon meeting Finlay, she gave him his choice out of her current stock.

“It really makes my work all worthwhile” Steck said upon meeting Fin. Beads are donated anonymously, meaning donors don’t usually meet recipient children.

To learn more about blood, plasma or stem cell donations, go to www.blood.ca.

Or download the Give Blood app to find donor centres, book appointments and keep track of your donations.

READ MORE: Vernon bead artist helps sick children tell their story

READ MORE: Patients bumped by COVID face anxiety, as health system searches for alternatives


Brendan Shykora
Reporter, Vernon Morning Star
Email me at Brendan.Shykora@vernonmorningstar.com
Follow us: Facebook | Twitter

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