Early last month, Melissa Kennedy and Ryan Wiita received some devastating news about their toddler.
Rowan Wiita, several weeks before his second birthday, was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
The Oro-Medonte Township family’s nightmare began in early September when Rowan’s parents noticed a large, swollen lump in Rowan’s neck. They immediately brought him in to Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital and were told it was a common swollen lymph node likely caused by a virus. It was treated as such and they were told if it didn’t go away to bring him back.
Unfortunately, the swelling didn’t go away. In fact, not long after, Rowan began having difficulties breathing and was brought back to the hospital where several tests were immediately ordered.
“I can’t imagine the terror and helplessness you would feel watching your child, your little guy, your baby turning blue, struggling to breathe, surrounded by a swarm of doctors trying to save his life,” says family friend Michael Tarle, who says the parents’ description of the scene “still haunts” him.
“Mel and Ryan were told that it was likely cancer and that there was a tumour in his chest pushing against his airway and heart, making it hard for him to breathe,” says Tarle.
They were immediately rushed by ambulance to the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto where Rowan was tended to in the facility’s intensive care unit.
The next day a successful biopsy was performed on his lymph node by specialists who described the procedure as “extremely dangerous”. It was then that Rowan’s parents learned of his specific type of cancer, T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma or T-ALL, and that he will require heavy chemotherapy treatments for, likely, years to come.
In a heartbeat, their lives changed forever.
Rowan, like other chemo patients, will not be able to attend playgroups, festivals, crowded playgrounds or even grocery stores like other toddlers when treatment causes an additional risk of him catching a virus that, due to his compromised immune system, could be deadly.
He will spend his second birthday at the Ronald McDonald House.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for the family, who say Rowan has always been a happy, healthy boy.
“Rowan was always one of those babies that had a little grin that made everyone smile, always exploring, challenging boundaries and keeping a close eye on his mommy and daddy whom he loves so much,” says Tarle. “He loves playing in the backyard, goofing around with mommy and daddy, reading books, learning about the world, attempting to befriend his cats and hanging out with his toddler buddies.”
He is a “typical toddler with extraordinary parents who would move heaven and earth for their child,” said Tarle, who has known Ryan and Melissa for many years.
“They are the most humble, selfless and giving individuals I have ever known,” he says, noting Ryan works installing specialized sports flooring across the province and makes custom furniture in his spare time. Mel is a talented goldsmith who “has always had a passion for creating,” he said.
In fact, the couple moved to Barrie in 2007 when Mel was accepted into Georgian College’s Jewellery and Metals program. She won many awards for her designs and went on to work at a few local jewellery stores until taking maternity leave when Rowan was born in 2016.
At around the same time, they moved to Oro-Medonte.
"Everyone who has ever met them has nothing but wonderful things to say about them," Tarle said of the young family. "They did everything right, they worked hard, saved up to buy a house, never did anything wrong, loved their family, friends and child and have just been devastated by this."
While the cancer diagnosis is devastating so, too, is the practical impact of the disease, that is reverberating daily.
Fighting cancer has led to increased expenses and reduced income. Ryan has been off work since the original trip to the hospital and won’t return until Rowan is past these critical stages and the frequent, sometimes daily, hospital treatments that leave Rowan ill and the family taxed.
It is unlikely Mel will be able to return to work, maybe for years. Rowan will most likely not be able to attend daycare/preschool in the years to come due to the immune system issues and the amount of time needed for continued, frequent appointments and treatments.
They are currently living by his side at SickKids and Ronald McDonald House, out of suitcases filled mostly with home comforts for Rowan.
“They have worked hard, saved for years and bought their own house Ryan was fixing up when not travelling for work,” says Tarle. “They have car payments, mortgage payments, insurance and hydro bills added to the cost of travel to and from Toronto for years to come for Rowan’s continued treatment with only Ryan’s EI payments currently coming in.”
With that in mind, Tarle is trying to help the family. He has launched a GoFundMe campaign and is hoping the community will step up.
Rowan has stepped up. He has been a “warrior” throughout the process.
“With every test performed, biopsy, tube inserted, needle injected, with every X-ray, CT scan and dose of chemotherapy treatment, Rowan has gotten back up and continued to be, well, Rowan,” says Tarle. “He has continued to play hide and seek, play with his toys and giggle with mommy and daddy because he knows they need those moments of love as much as he does.”
Click here for information about the GoFundMe account.