Let’s remove any frills at the start — inspirational anecdotes or descriptions of bravery. This is a story about a boy — an ordinary/extraordinary boy, and his friend. It’s a little about shaved heads, too, but that’s less important.
Alex Tourangeau is 10-and-a-half years old and he’s quite the athlete with an extensive catalogue of sports under his belt: soccer, Kung Fu, martial arts and kickboxing, just to name a few. Alistair McDonald also shares this passion for sports, like wrestling, and the two spend a lot of time discussing the latest stats and playing video games. Over the past six months, their friendship has transformed into an inseparable bond, one that outsiders may not fully comprehend. There’s one significant difference between the two — Alistair is a first-year med student at the University of Ottawa. In addition to his enthusiasm for sports, he’s also interested in pediatrics, which is how he met Alex.
“It was a bit surreal to meet him at first,” Alistair explained. “I was a little shocked — here was this boy, hooked up to IV lines and I felt helpless. But he had this big smile on his face and was just beaming and optimistic and outgoing. He calmed me down right away, although I felt I shouldn’t have been the nervous one.”
In July, Alex was diagnosed with Leukemia. The weekend before, he had played in a soccer tournament and won a gold medal. Now, he’s accomplishing new victories and getting new medals, like his Candlelighters’ Courage Beads that are almost 20 feet long.
“He has a bead for every event he’s gone through, like blood work and chemo treatments,” said Cheryl, Alex’s mother. “We’ve supplemented a bead for each time he spends with Alistair, too. It’s a good visual representation of his journey and when he’s had a rough day, we lay them out to remind him of how far he’s come.”
And just to emphasize exactly how far he’s come: Alex has 110 white courage beads on his strand, which account for the number of chemo treatments he’s undergone at CHEO.
“Living with cancer has been a huge roller coaster — there are real highs and devastating lows, including the loss of one of his good friends to cancer at the hospital,” she added. “And Alistair was there through everything. They are good together and good for each other.”
Under CHEO’s buddy program with the University of Ottawa, Alistair was paired up with Alex, based on their common interests and personalities. Camp Quality is the sponsoring agency for the CHEO buddy program. It follows a similar model where campers (who are dealing with cancer) are paired with a dedicated adult companion, ensuring they have a buddy to hang out with during their experience at camp. Alistair provides support to Alex and his parents, while gaining a better understanding of what it’s like to live with cancer. Anything medically-related is off-topic, unless the child brings it up.
“From Alex’s perspective, Alistair is someone else other than mom and dad he can speak with because our novelty wears off,” said Cheryl. “From Alistair’s perspective, it gives him the insight textbooks and professors don’t give you — to see what a sick kid is going through. He’s seen Alex at his best and at his worst. He’s really like his big brother.”
Alistair says he got involved with the buddy program when he heard about it through a friend and met their CHEO buddy. After witnessing their bond, he was inspired to join and reminded of his cousin Michael, who was also sick when he was younger.
“Our friendship has evolved and grown exponentially,” said Alistair. “We talk about sports but we also talk about life. The more time I spend with him and his family and see him go through it all, the more I’m encouraged to help other sick kids. His family have really embraced me and they’re extremely likable people — it’s just been an amazing experience.”
Alistair’s presence has provided Cheryl and her family with extra support, especially through harder days.
“There have been periods of a day or more when Alex doesn’t want to eat but then Alistair visits and is able to entice him,” she said. “There have been days where I couldn’t get him up and Alistair does and days when Alex is down and when he sees Alistair, he instantly brightens up. It gives me peace of mind and even a little break as we can go for lunch and not worry, knowing he’s safe.”
In an effort to put an even bigger smile on Alex’s face and encourage people to volunteer like he has, Alistair has asked him to shave his head. Through the University of Ottawa’s Shave for a Cure event on April 9, Alex, with electric shaver in hand, will leave Alistair with a bright new dome head, similar to his own experience with losing his hair. Now, Alex’s hair has grown back and is baby soft, as seen in his photo. Alistair is raising donations in honour of Alex and the event.
“Alex is one of the most positive influences on my life,” said Alistair. He’s inspired me and motivated me to work hard in med school. Every time I get worn down and stressed out, I just think of him and everything he’s gone though with such courage and I just know it doesn’t compare.”