Todde Friberg, who turned 10 in August 2014, is the eldest of three children. In summer 2010, his siblings Tyra and Eril stayed at home with their father Freddy, while Todde and his mother made a trip to Oslo. Todde's mother Nina Brännkär-Friberg noticed the first symptoms of illness in his son when they were holidaying together.
’He had been somehow absent throughout the summer and did not have much of an appetite even on the trip. One day he vomited, but thought that he had just drank too much lemonade’, says Nina. For my part, I thought he suffered from some kind of a vitamin deficiency and called home, saying that we would need to have some blood tests taken when we return home.
Ambulance ride to the hospital
Once they had returned home on Friday, Todde's mother called the local health centre. They were asked to come in right away so that they would not need to spend the whole weekend worrying about the tests. The family went to the town health centre and a blood test was taken. Todde’s abdomen also needed to be scanned.
“We were sitting in the waiting room, when I saw a paediatrician go in. When he came out, he said ”Todde's blood is not doing very well” and I immediately asked him whether it was leukaemia,’ Nina says.
Todde's haemoglobin count was 43, way below normal levels. The family was given an order to go home and pack their things – this had to be done in 45 minutes. They were also told to get prepared for a long stay at the hospital. Todde was put on a drip and he and his mother were given an ambulance ride to Tampere.
The bone marrow sample taken on Monday showed that 83 per cent of Todde's blood cells were cancerous. Like any other leukaemia patient, Todde began receiving treatments with strong cytostatic drugs. The patient’s situation is re-evaluated after four weeks, and the cases are divided into low, medium and high-risk patients. High-risk patients often need a stem cell transplant, and this was also the case with Todde.
Shuttling to and fro between home and the hospital
The probability of someone in the same family being a suitable donor is 25 per cent. No one in the family was a suitable donor for Todde and he was put on a waiting list for a stem cell transplant.
’When you are given multiple cytostatic treatments, you lose your own immunity. The first time, we stayed at the hospital for seven weeks, and then we were able to come home. Todde's siblings could not continue in day care due to the risk of infection, and every now and then we had to go to the hospital in an ambulance. We were shuttling to and fro between home and the hospital,’ says Nina.
Todde, however, spent more time at the hospital than at home, and the parents took turns spending time with him at the hospital. After all, they had two other small children to take care of as well.
’At the hospital, we established our own shared routines, like always eating breakfast and lunch together. In spite of all the hardships, Todde has good memories from the hospital,’ Freddy says.
Todde was in line for a stem cell transplant for a long time and he also had some bad luck along the way. The first two stem cell transplants were cancelled, but the third one was performed as planned on 31 March 2011.
’We were kept well informed all the time. We knew what was going on, and when the stem cell transplant was finally performed, it did not take more than 45 minutes. Ten days after the procedure, blood tests showed that everything was in order. After a stem cell transplant, patients spend at least 45 days at the hospital. Todde was in so much of a hurry to get home that he started eating bacon and eggs soon after the operation to get his strength back’, Freddy says with a laugh.
The family got to go home 45 days after the procedure. But then Todde had to go back to the hospital for another month. The boy got really depressed and the family tried to cheer him up by buying him a rabbit. The rabbit turned out to be good therapy for Todde.
The whole family was in isolation
After the stem cell transplant, the whole family had to spend one year in isolation due to the risk of infection. The experience welded the family together. They spent a lot of time at home and in the forests, got some take-away food and ate it in some beautiful spot outdoors, arranged fun parties and events, and did a lot of crafts. Todde, whose teaching had to be conducted at home and at the hospital for a long time, was able to return to his own school in autumn 2012.
’Todde's bone marrow still does not function as it should. He is given a gamma globulin injection every six weeks, and he has to take both antibiotics and calcium tablets. In spite of all that, he has been one of the healthiest pupils in his class’, Nina says.
When one sees the family making noise in a small playground in the centre of Pietarsaari, it is difficult to understand how much they have had to go through and what amount of strength it has required to cope with it all.
’People often ask me how I cope with a thing like this. The answer is quite simple – you don't have any alternatives. It is a little like rock climbing; once you are up, you also have to come down. You just have to go through the whole journey, no matter what it is like’, says Todde's father Freddy Friberg, crystallising the experience.