Wrapped in love

“I’m stronger than I think I am. I’m tougher than I think I am.”

These are the defiant words of 13-year-old Emma Walsh.

She is a daughter, a sister, a student, a friend. She is also fighting an insidious illness - acute lymphoblastic leukaemia.

A graduate of St Paul’s Primary School, Gateshead, who now attends St Mary’s Catholic College, Gateshead, Emma had no idea she would miss close to two years of school after presenting with swollen glands in July 2022.

Initially, three rounds of blood tests, ultrasounds and chest x-rays all came back normal, but Emma’s doctors and family knew something wasn’t right.

A subsequent trip to the emergency room, and another chest x-ray, finally revealed Emma had so many lymph nodes that her oesophagus was almost blocked.

An emergency bone marrow aspirate and biopsy confirmed a cancer diagnosis and overnight the Walsh’s home became the hospital.

Emma had been competing at a dance competition in Sydney, like so many other 11-year-olds, just a week before.

Over the last two years, Emma has been undergoing intense chemotherapy which has taken an enormous toll.

Her mother, Alex Walsh, described the treatment as being, “enough to almost kill you, but just not actually kill you”.

The aim is to hit the cancer cells with poison and continue this for some time after zero cancer cells are detected, to ensure it doesn’t grow back.

Alex said the chemotherapy had hit Emma very hard, causing liver failure, kidney issues, changes to the brain, damage to her heart and osteoporosis which resulted in the need for a wheelchair.

“Our routine became either Emma’s Dad or myself staying with Emma,” said Alex.

“After school, Emma’s brother and sister would come to the hospital, we’d spend the afternoon at the hospital together and have dinner together. There were a lot of UberEATS, and then one of us would stay with Emma while the other three went home.”

While plenty of YouTube and Young Sheldon is what Emma prescribed herself for entertainment, she also found something else to focus on which has given her immense purpose.

After spending over 150 nights in the John Hunter Hospital, Emma was confident she knew exactly what was needed to make kids feel comfortable during their hospital stay.

With this knowledge, Emma’s Warriors was born.

Despite her devastating illness, Emma managed to start a charity which provides bespoke backpacks, offering a little bit of home, specifically for teens and tweens undergoing hospital treatment.

The ethos of the charity is simple - “I want to support other warriors just like me,” said Emma.

Containing bed sheets, bath towels, lip balm, fairy lights, room spray, moisturiser, white noise machines and iTunes gift cards, the backpacks are a toolkit to improve the quality of a lengthy hospital stay.

“It’s not just for cancer, it’s for any kind of sickness. I sort of realised after being in hospital that there’s a lot of reasons that kids end up there, and it’s a way to make it a little nicer for them,” said Emma.

A self-proclaimed internet shopping queen, Emma orders the materials to her house and packs the backpacks from her lounge room. Working with social workers at the hospital to identify where the need is, the Walsh family are paying it forward, one backpack at a time.

“Emma’s in the perfect position to do this – she is living it right now. She knows what’s needed,”
 said Alex.

The charity also supports families with practical and financial support.

Some of the proudest moments to date include donating a freezer to Ronald McDonald House, gifting physiotherapists at John Hunter a Nintendo Switch to help children in appointments, helping a family with flights to Melbourne to undergo treatment, and even supporting a family with funeral costs after they lost their child to their own cancer battle.

“It’s beautiful that we can say yes to helping people because of the support given to the charity,” said Alex.

When asked if Emma’s Warriors was something she wanted to work on forever, the answer was yes.

Alex supports Emma in her mission. “It’s exciting, but it’s kind of scary. Once you dig a bit deeper, you see the need is there for something like this,” Alex said. “You can’t help but just think we have to keep pushing forward. Don’t wait, because families need your support.”

Emma said the thing that has surprised her the most throughout her journey was the amount of silver linings.

“Sometimes you have to look a bit harder for them. But they’re there,” agreed Alex.

“It’s the most horrendous time of your life. But we’ve never felt more gratitude for the people around us and what we have.

 “Humans are good. You go through this, and you’re like, wow.”

Alex teaches kindergarten at St Paul’s Primary School in Gateshead and said from the first day of Emma’s cancer journey, she felt supported.

Whether it be the delivery of meals, care packages, pool maintenance or house cleaning, it was apparent the Walsh’s had a village supporting them and that village was showing up.

Although Emma missed her Year 6 graduation and the first day of Year 7, both schools have still involved her at every opportunity.

“Everyone has gone above and beyond to include me as much as possible,” said Emma.

From moving the final Year 6 mass down to a bigger hall so an immunocompromised Emma could attend after a long hospital stay, through to her classroom robot, which dials her in from her hospital bed, Emma is evidently a much-loved member of the school community.

“The parish support, the prayers and messages, even a vigil that was held for Emma, it has all been phenomenal,” said Alex.

“To know we have had that support the whole time, we couldn’t ask for more. We know how blessed we are. We’ve just been wrapped in so much love.”

While Emma is now in the maintenance phase of her chemotherapy, the family continues to pay it forward.

In addition to Emma’s Warriors, the Walsh family is also passionate about educating people on the significance of blood donation.

“Before this happened, we thought blood was for car accidents, women in labour and stuff like that. We had no idea the oncology kids relied on these blood products so heavily,” Alex said.

“Emma has had so many blood platelets and plasma transfusions in her time, and these products literally keep her alive so her body can cope with the chemotherapy.

“It’s really scary because you’re relying on donations - it’s not like it can be made in a lab.”

Calling on her village of support, last year Emma encouraged people to donate blood.

 “Team Emma” came fifth in Newcastle, with almost 300 people donating blood, helping to save around 900 lives.

Jemma Falkenmire from LifeBlood said that cancer patients are the nation’s largest users of blood, with a third of all blood collected used to treat cancer and blood diseases.

“For context, a patient with acute leukemia can use up to 36 bags of platelets each month. Four donors are needed to make a single bag of platelets,” said Ms Falkenmire.

“We are seeing cancer rates in Australian children rising, and children living with cancer will need more blood donors every year to support them. If you’re able to donate, we really do encourage you to do so.”

The Walsh’s broader aims this year include growing the charity and encouraging more blood donations, while their personal goals are firmly focused on getting Emma walking again and out of her wheelchair.

“During this phase, we can really focus on rehab, we can start to get back to a little normal life,” Alex said.

“Maintenance will go until around November and then we’re having the biggest party ever.”

When asked about the most significant lesson learned through Emma’s treatment, Alex said it was about strength.

“I think we’ve all got strength. It’s not a matter of honour. You just have to do it. The strength is there, and you just have to find it. You have to push through. You have to look at the positives,” she said.

“We feel really blessed that although it’s been a really rocky start to Emma’s journey, she’s doing well now.

“And we're so grateful for that, because there's been a lot of beautiful little friends that haven't been as fortunate as Emma to make it this far.”

For more information on blood donation visit www.lifeblood.com.au

For more information on Emma’s Warriors, follow @emma_warriors_ on Instagram

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