By: Lee Umbers
For 25 years, Starship children’s hospital and its fundraising foundation have been saving the lives of Kiwi kids. Many stars have lent support by raising the spirts of the sick and making big donations, but the real heroes are the brave kids and the staff who work there.
The day before Logan Coulam’s primary school cross country race last month he woke with a sore stomach. Mum Kylie thought it was probably nerves.
In fact, it was the first signal of what would become the battle of his young life. When the 9-year-old also began to get feverish and started feeling pain in his jaw and left leg in September, Kylie suspected a virus and took him to Starship’s Children’s Hospital emergency department.
Tests by alert staff revealed he had the fast-growing Burkitt leukemia. Logan was admitted and courses of chemotherapy started.
He is expected to spend the next six to eight months having the life-saving treatment.
Kylie says she and husband, Simon, were really grateful to the ED staff who “looked at a kid who possibly just could have had a virus, and … didn’t send us home.
“They took the time to investigate – and how lucky we are they did.”
Logan, a keen basketballer and soccer player who also regularly won cross country races, will spend the next several months on Level 7 of Starship, in the haematology and oncology ward.
His family, from Auckland’s North Shore, have had a similar ordeal before. Older son Zavier was found to have cancer at 4, and beat it, with the help of Starship. “I couldn’t believe it could happen to a family twice,” says Kylie.
But the family’s belief in the skills and determination of the Starship medical team means “our heads are in the right space now. We hung on to that last time.”
Zavier is now in remission.
The world-class staff at the Auckland-based national children’s hospital, and the courage of its young patients and their families, are being celebrated in a gala ball later this month.
The Through the Looking Glass charity event will mark the 25th birthday of Starship and of the Starship Foundation, which has raised more than $129 million to help the hospital save and improve the lives of generations of Kiwi youngsters.
Last year alone, Starship – where patients range from premature babies to 15-year-olds and sometimes older – had 125,359 patient visits and looked after about 1200 children in its intensive care unit.
Logan’s hospital room is very different from the one where Kylie slept on a mattress to be beside Zavier, now 13, during his 3½ years of treatment for acute lymphocyctic leukemia.
There were then four beds in a room and four mattresses on the floor for adult family members, she says. “And we always lucked out and ended up with the mattress that was underneath the sink.”
This time, Logan has his own room, a parent bed, TV and bathroom.
“Coming this time, the ward has such a different feel,” says Kylie, who will remain “forever indebted” to Starship for its care of her sons. “Having your own room. Having a bathroom and even having a bed to sleep on just make such a difference.”
The rebuilt haematology and oncology ward opened in 2009, after a $6m contribution from the Starship Foundation, including a $1m donation from superstar golf caddy Steve Williams and wife Kirsty.
The Steve Williams Foundation was established in 2001 to assist and foster junior golf. The couple decided to extend their philanthropy, and made the contribution after visiting the ward.
“It was impossible not to get emotional. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a child diagnosed with cancer and then have to go through the long treatment process,” Williams said at the time.
“As a father, making the donation to the Starship Foundation felt like the right thing to do.”
Kirsty’s father, Ian Miller, a builder, also donated his time and skill – upgrading the ward’s parent kitchen.
Other high-profile Starship Foundation donors include Sir Graeme and Lady Ngaire Douglas, who in 2010 gifted $3m to launch the hospital’s radiology MRI service.
Before then, children needing an MRI scan had to be transported under sedation, with their families and teams of medical specialists, into the adult services facility.
“It gives us great pleasure to ensure Starship Hospital has its own MRI facility to avoid the delays and discomfort currently experienced by young patients,” Sir Graeme said.
Sir Graeme, who died last year, and Lady Ngaire also contributed over $780,000 in 2013 towards refurbishing Starship’s Level 6 neuroservices and medical specialities wards, and over $820,000 in 2015 to support the upgrade of Starship’s operating rooms.
Director of surgical services Dr John Beca has been at Starship for 23 years. He has seen it grow from a predominantly regional facility to a national treasure.
Year-round, day and night, its air ambulance brings children from around the country to Starship for life-saving care. About half the patients in intensive care are from outside greater Auckland.
Medical staff also visit patients, running about 800 clinics a year around New Zealand.
Beca, also clinical director of Starship’s paediatric intensive care unit (Picu), has seen medical advancements increasingly save lives and speed recovery.
“When I first started out, infants having major heart surgery would often be critically unwell for days or sometimes even weeks, and some didn’t survive,” he says.
Now many children with the same conditions, “will only be on life support for a couple of hours after surgery, and go home a lot sooner, and have a much higher chance of surviving”.
Many operations can now be performed using less invasive techniques, such as keyhole surgery. “That means operations have become a lot less painful, children stay in hospital for a much shorter period of time. They get better faster.”
The number of orthopaedic beds is about the same as 25 years ago but three times the number of patients are treated. This is due to shorter hospital stays and a move to more day stay and outpatient treatment.
Beca was involved in the introduction in 1993 of life-support ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) equipment, which does the job of the heart and lungs in providing oxygen to the body.
“It’s a modified heart-bypass machine that’s used for the most critical patients, and it buys time for children who are close to dying, to recover.
“The majority of them recover and go on to lead normal lives.”
He says long-term patients and their families often establish strong bonds with nursing and medical staff, and send cards or return to show how well they have recovered. “It’s a particularly rewarding part of the job.”
Two years ago, he and other members of the Picu team were invited to the birthday party of a girl who had been treated as a critically ill newborn.
“She had, at that time, almost no chance of survival. It was in the early days of ECMO and she survived and did incredibly well.
“We were invited by the family to her 18th birthday. And there she was dancing with her family and friends. That was amazing.
“It was very humbling to be brought back into the life of a family and share a special celebration.”
Beca is “incredibly proud” of the staff at Starship, about 1600 working full and part-time, which includes surgeons, paediatricians, nursing staff, physiotherapists, dietitians, occupational therapists, speech therapists, play specialists, psychologists and social workers.
“It takes a whole team to wrap around the patients and provide the care that we are really proud of. It’s not just about saving lives, but also about improving the quality of those lives, and it takes the whole team to be able to do that.”
Starship has drawn visitors from around the globe, including sporting heroes, pop stars, celebrities and royalty. “King of Pop” Michael Jackson took time out from his HISstory tour in 1996 to spend hours greeting patients, posing for photographs and answering questions before giving them toys and autographed CDs and photos as mementos.
In 2005, Prince William took extra time on his tour to visit patients in the oncology and orthopaedic wards, and paediatric critical care unit. Other stars to visit include Jonah Lomu and many other All Blacks, Justin Beiber, Delta Goodrem and Lucy Lawless.
The Starship Foundation fundraiser plays a crucial part in helping Starship to operate and expand its childcare services.
Since 1992, the foundation has secured commercial and personal donations to pay for key equipment, building renovations, clinical research and innovation, and staff training programmes.
Starship Foundation board trustee Sarah Lynds says the $129,278,010 it has raised over the past 25 years is “a reflection of how generous Kiwis are”.
“It also shows New Zealanders want to support the health and welfare of our children and our future as a nation.”
The Friends of Starship, which hosts charity events on behalf of the foundation, is helping arrange the Through the Looking Glass ball at Auckland’s Spark Arena on October 27.
The event is a chance to celebrate Starship’s countless success stories, its staff and to thank New Zealanders for their generous support over the past quarter of a century.
It is also “about looking ‘Through the Looking Glass’ into the future and sharing Starship Foundation’s vision for the years ahead”, says Lynds, who is also the chairwoman of Friends of Starship.
“We are so grateful to our generous supporters and donors right across the country.
“Their vision, their genuine care, and their generosity means so much to the staff, patients and families at Starship.”
About 600 are expected to attend the ball, which will feature performers including Tiki Taane, Hollie Smith, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, Richard O’Brien, Sweet Mix Kids, Bubblegum Hip Hop Crew and Black Quartet.
The MCs will be actor Antonia Prebble and Mike Puru. Prebble says she has “always been aware of the incredible work that Starship does. It is an amazing organisation that has changed the lives of so many children, so I was thrilled to be asked to be a part of this anniversary celebration and have an opportunity to contribute in some way.”
Inspired by his baby son, in 2010 Tiki Taane released the song Starship Lullaby, with all proceeds donated to Starship.
“Every day Starship saves lives,” the chart-topping musician says. “They help so many children and their families overcome traumatic and life-threatening challenges.
“I will always support and advocate for this incredible foundation, so to be able to help celebrate 25 years of Starship will be an extremely proud moment for everyone who has been touched by their awesomeness.”
Making use of every day
Outdoors adventurer and seasoned traveller Oli Polson makes “full use of every day that’s given to me” because he knows just how precious and fragile life is.
The 31-year-old “chased summer” around Europe, Canada and the US for seven years working as an adventure tourism guide, and since settling back in New Zealand continues to tramp, rock climb, mountain bike and go canyoning.
Polson’s vitality is a far cry from when he was a desperately ill teen battling an immune deficiency that had taken the lives of his elder sister and younger brother.
At 14, he made medical history when he underwent a life-saving double transplant – liver, then bone marrow – co-ordinated at Starship Children’s Hospital.
Polson, who grew up in Te Kuiti, remembers having felt “really, really unwell for what felt like forever” before his surgery.
A primary immunodeficiency meant he was especially susceptible to illness, and his liver functions were severely compromised.
His elder sister Jane died at 2, and younger brother Jack at 8, of a severe form of the immune deficiency, Polson says.
In 2000, multiple medical teams gathered at Starship to prepare for the complex and breakthrough surgery that would give him his second chance at life.
His liver transplant, at Auckland City Hospital, was the first for a child in New Zealand. Worldwide, the double transplant operation had been performed just five times previously.
The call came at 5am that a suitable liver was on its way from Western Australia. Polson was in theatre around noon for an 11-hour operation.
Six weeks later he was back on the ward for his bone marrow transplant – the donor, his mother Kate.
Polson recalls his elation and relief when it became apparent the later transplant had been successful.
“The liver transplant worked when I woke up basically,” he says, jokingly likening the operation to “replacing a spark plug in a car – it either works or it doesn’t”.
“Whereas [with] the stem cell transplant – it’s basically a waiting period to see whether the graft is going to take or not. [I] was very, very well aware that it was all very much up in the air.
“But Day 14, blood tests in the morning confirmed that the graft had started to take and that I was starting to produce my own white blood cells. It was pretty cool. It was a massive relief.”
Polson has spoken of the medical marvel that helped save his life ahead of the October 27 ‘Through the Looking Glass’ charity ball which will mark the 25th birthdays of Starship and the Starship Foundation; the latter which has raised more than $129 million to help the hospital save and improve the lives of generations of Kiwi youngsters.
Last year alone, Starship – where patients range from premature babies to 15-year-olds and sometimes beyond – had 125,359 patient visits and looked after around 1200 children in its intensive care unit.
Polson, now living in rural Te Aroha with partner Chelsea, Gus the dog and Stanley the cat, says his health today is “perfect”.
He is deeply grateful to the medical teams and Starship staff who saved and supported him. “[I] would not be alive without the entire team, everyone from the surgeons… to the people who delivered meals at night – they’re all stars.”
- Liver transplants have now been performed on 122 children by the New Zealand Liver Transplant Unit, under the care of the paediatric gastroenterology team at Starship.
1991: Starship opens on November 18, NZ’s first hospital exclusively for children and young people. The name is chosen because of the building’s design around a central atrium.
1992: Starship Foundation is formed.
1992: Friends of Starship is founded.
1993: Life-support ECMO equipment is introduced.
1994: Transport of sick and injured children to PICU progresses to include an air service.
2000: Neurology and neurosurgery ward opens.
2000: NZ Liver Transplant Unit at Auckland Hospital performed first liver transplant on a child.
2003: Paediatric and congenital cardiac service relocates from Greenlane Hospital. New emergency department, intensive care unit, radiology department.
2004: Greenlane Clinical Centre is established. Services now include paediatric diabetes and endocrine service, community child health and disability services, audiology.
2009: Multimillion-dollar re-build of oncology & haematology ward.
2010: Radiology MRI service is launched.
2013: New and improved neuroservices and medical specialties wards.
2015: New Starship National Air Ambulance plane.
2015: After $9 million upgrade, new operating rooms and surgical facilities are officially opened.
2016: Starship celebrates 25 years.
Source: NZ Herald