SOME have been ill, others battered and bruised by the worst life can throw their way and a few have shown courage and maturity that defies their years.
And there are brave wee souls whose biggest Christmas wish is to just wave goodbye to a year of hospitals and needles, chemotherapy and surgery, and maybe look forward, if they’re lucky, to a better year.
Together they make up some of Edinburgh’s most deserving and fragile children. And next Sunday they will head off on a magical trip to a winter wonderland, where the nightmare of illness, grief, fear and pain will be forgotten in a glorious day of Christmas fun.
The countdown has started to the annual festive away day, when 20 deserving children and young teens will board a plane bound for Lapland, for a special treat organised by city charity FACE to help them either put aside a hellish year that would challenge the fortitude of most adults or as a grateful “thank you” for exceptional acts of kindness to others.
For Louis Hainsworth, the journey to the top of the world is particularly special – two years ago Christmas was overshadowed as he battled illness, while this time last year he was careering towards one of the toughest episodes anyone of any age might have to endure.
The Leith Primary School pupil was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in October 2011 after a bout of chest infections had failed to clear up. Blood tests revealed the rare condition – AML only affects around 50 children in the UK every year – and that Christmas was spent undergoing debilitating treatment.
“After that he was in remission,” recalls mum Chalan Field. “Then on New Year’s Eve he had a massive nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. I took him to hospital where they said he’d relapsed.”
It was terrifying news which meant the race was on to find a vital stem cell transplant. Luckily that came in April when he received the crucial treatment, vital in his fight to recover.
Soon 11-year-old Louis, of Great Junction Street in Leith, will be well enough to go back to school, but first – a week on Sunday – comes the trip of a lifetime to a place where, hopefully, every Christmas wish comes true.
Joining him will be young people like him who have battled bravely through illness – and some still in the grip of a nightmare fight – and others who have been forced to dig deep to find tough reserves of resilience as life implodes around them.
Such as Daniella Forsyth, who has never really known a time when illness and hospitals were not part of her family’s life. She’s seen her mum Cheryl fight through breast cancer and liver problems, while her dad Douglas endured complications of Crohn’s disease for years.
Sadly just 12 weeks ago, her greatest fear came true when he finally succumbed, aged just 51.
“Daniella has never known a time when there wasn’t illness in her life. She’s been a carer for her dad and for me and while she’s still just 14, she’s seen and dealt with more than most adults have to,” says mum Cheryl, 53, of Calder Road, Sighthill.
“When she was a baby the disease had basically eaten its way through her dad’s bowel. Then in 2005 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, had chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a breast removed. She’s spent her whole life worrying about us.”
Her dad’s condition worsened last year but had appeared to stabilise. Then on September 13 and without warning, he passed away.
“Daniella is a great girl – and I’m not just saying that because I’m her mum,” says Cheryl. “She’s been through a lot more than any child should have to go through.
“When she first heard she was going on the trip, she wasn’t really sure what it would be like. But I know she’s going to have an incredible time.”
Twenty children will join the FACE charity outing, supported by 23 adult helpers who will ensure every child, no matter how poorly or fragile, has the time of their life. Fundraising and donations help pay for the annual trip north, where young and those a little older enjoy being pulled on a sleigh by reindeer and huskies, sledging, travelling over an icy lake by ski-doo and a truly magical stroll by candlelight to Santa’s woodland cottage.
Among those joining the fun-filled trip will be Emma Sutherland, 13, of Fairmilehead, who earlier this year launched Eek My Mummy has Breast Cancer, a book she wrote to help youngsters who, like her, find out their mum is suddenly ill.
According to organiser John Macaulay, this year’s trip is particularly special, for it is the 20th anniversary year – and a chance for all concerned to reflect on the highs, and in some cases the later lows, of whisking special children off for a magical journey to Santa’s home.
“The best bit is seeing their faces, it is a truly magical trip,” says the retired police officer who now works at Forrester High School. “But, sadly, some children are very ill. It’s heartbreaking, some have very short lives.”
The trip is also a unique chance to thank amazing young people who put their own interests aside to help others. Jonathon Fotheringham launched a dance troupe which has raised thousands of pounds for the Western General cancer funds, a special tribute to the two adored grandmothers he lost to lung cancer. “My mum died ten years ago, and Jonathon’s other gran died three years ago,” explains his mum Jacqui.
“Jonathon absolutely loved them and wanted to do something. He started washing cars and holding back garden dance shows. Since then it’s grown and grown.”
The fourth-year Forrester High pupil launched Jump4Cancer, a dance group which this year alone has raised more than £2000 for the Western General. In previous years the group’s performances have paid for equipment to make cancer patients’ stay in hospital more comfy and electronic equipment to keep them occupied.
Jonathon, of Sighthill Terrace, says the closer the Lapland trip gets, the more exciting it becomes.
“At first I thought it might be strange going there with lots of strangers, but now I can’t wait,” he says. “I think it’s going to be amazing.”
• FACE (Fight Against Cancer Edinburgh) is holding its annual fundraising Christmas Fair tomorrow at Edinburgh Cancer Centre, Western General Hospital from 11am to 3pm. Funds go towards sending deserving children to Lapland in coming years.
It’s Robert’s spirit and John’s hard work
THE annual trip to Lapland has brought joy into the lives of sick and deserving youngsters for 20 years. Hundreds of children and teens have joined the journey to the frozen north, forgetting their troubles for a day of magic winter fun.
It’s largely thanks to someone just like them – a young teen with a cancer battle that, sadly, he’d eventually lose – and a dedicated organiser who has devoted years to making sure it happens like clockwork.
West Lothian teen Robert Murray was 14 when he learned he had incurable cancer. But his spirit sparked a flood of support, much of it from strangers touched by his determination to enjoy what time he had left.
Fundraisers ensured he could follow his dream of visiting First World War battlefields, but as Robert’s health failed, a decision was made to divert remaining cash into helping others.
Police officer John Macaulay had just completed a sponsored bike ride from Robert’s home in Bathgate to Edinburgh, when the pair decided to put the cash towards sending children to Lapland for a Christmas trip.
“It was something Robert wanted,” recalls John, who received an MBE for his charity work in 1995. “This is his legacy.”
John, 62, who has been on every trip, adds: “It’s always an emotional day of highs and a few tears when we think of what the kids have had to go through. I’ve been to a lot of funerals too. But at least for one day we can give them a wonderful day.”