Sameer Hafizi has the most expressive chocolate brown eyes. They widen and shine based on just how excited he is about the information he’s about to share. Even on the day we first meet in CHEO’s Medical Day Unit (MDU), he's groggy and sore from a lumbar puncture (LP), but still manages to rattle off a dozen fun facts about his latest video game obsession – his eyes sparkling and quickly overtaking the lingering anesthesia.
Fast forward six months, Sameer is seven years old, and at the halfway mark in his two-year treatment plan. Today is a non-treatment and he's bubbling over with energy. He is back at school with his friends and his dark hair, lost to chemotherapy, is returning. He is buoyed by a loving tight knit family; his parents Mursal and Aimal and his five-year-old brother, Zayed.
Sameer chats with zeal about his overflowing network of school and neighbourhood friends. “We play games at school like Element tag. Someone gets to be fire, water, you know,” he says excitedly. “We also pretend we’re battling Robot Monsters to save the world; we play Pokémon.” He ticks options off on his fingers, fearing he may have forgotten something. He also reserves some playtime for his little brother.
So much has happened to him in a year. In September 2022, Sameer began to feel sick, in and out of school with colds and fevers. He was exhausted, pale and complained of headaches, back and leg pain. "We didn’t have a doctor,” his mom, Mursal, explains. “We were going to clinics and couldn’t get answers. Deep down we knew something was wrong.”
Halloween night, 2022 was the turning point. “We went trick-or-treating,” Mursal recalls. “But Sameer didn’t want to walk up to the doors for candy, he just fell asleep in our wagon.” They begged Aimal’s childhood family doctor for an appointment.
“He took one look at Sameer and told us to go to CHEO immediately,” Mursal says, her voice breaking. “Aimal was there all night, and, in the morning, the CHEO team said they needed to speak to both of us right away.”
The news was grim. “The cancer was through his blood and bone marrow,” Mursal says, wiping her eyes. “They told us if we had waited another day...” Mursal adds, unable to finish the thought. “It wouldn’t have been the same,” is all she can manage, exhaling.
The oncology experts at CHEO acted swiftly and Sameer’s treatment started immediately. The first week, Sameer required chemotherapy every day. There were surgeries that followed, including a port inserted to receive his IV treatments. Complications surfaced including an allergic reaction to not one, but two different chemotherapy drugs. “We were admitted for a week at a time, sometimes,” Mursal recalls. “Sameer had fever, hives, infections – and we also had a younger son who needed attention.”
As his family adjusted to a new routine. Zayed had to leave school for Sameer’s safety. “I would sometimes sleep in the hospital, my youngest with me,” she says shaking her head. “I don’t know how we did it, but I’m proud of how my little family took this on!”
But Mursal says she is inspired to share their story because of the support from their CHEO family. “They saved Sameer’s life,” she says simply, her eyes shiny with tears. “They cared for my babies like they were their own,” Mursal she adds with a smile. “The days I could eat or take a shower and not worry about my boys were a gift! Everyone needs to know how lucky we are to have CHEO.” Child Life Specialist, Chelsea, made all the difference! She would get Sameer videogames, make slime, or play games to help him pass the time. “We’ve taken so many gifts from this experience,” Mursal reflects. “Always listen to your heart, and to your gut. If you know something is wrong, persevere and get answers. It brought us to CHEO and that’s why our son is still here!