Ollie said it is a good sport for him now that he has lost his sight because skateboarding is about feel.
During the toughest part of his cancer treatment three years ago, Ollie Acosta-Pickering and his family put together a list of reasons for him to get better.
Near the top of that list, even higher than them, his family jokes, was skateboarding.
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By then, Ollie needed motivation. The rare, aggressive cancer — anaplastic large cell lymphoma — he had been diagnosed with months earlier had spread to his brain and spine, leaving the eight-year-old Ottawa boy blind and in need of intense pain medication. He went through two relapses after initial treatments. His body looked like a pin cushion from the constant poking and prodding, said his mother, Dawn Pickering,
Meanwhile, his health-care providers faced shrinking treatment options to coincide with new barriers caused by COVID-19. A planned stem cell transplant with an overseas donor had to be cancelled when air travel shut down early in the pandemic.
Still, he never stopped asking whether he could return to skateboarding — a sport he started before he became ill.
Those pleas intensified after Ollie, now 10, went into remission with the help of a last-ditch drug designed to treat lung cancer. That enabled him to undergo a successful stem cell transplant in the summer of 2020. His sister Abby, 11 years old at the time, was the donor. He is now cancer free.
Ollie said it is a good sport for him now that he has lost his sight because skateboarding is about feel. “I wanted to get back on my skateboard so badly after the stem cell transplant.”
His mother wasn’t surprised. The ever-active Ollie had organized games of floor hockey at CHEO while undergoing chemo, hauling an intravenous drip line behind him as he played. But skateboarding was another level for a child who had been through what her son had. “Part of me was just like … why would I ever let you, blind after a stem cell transplant and cancer, get on a board? You could kill yourself.”
But after learning about a Canadian National Institute for the Blind program in Calgary to help blind and low-vision youth skateboard and then finding a local instructor eager to work with Ollie, she agreed.
“It was one of the things that really motivated him to get well, so how do you say no?” she said. “You can’t work this hard to save your child and not let them live.”
Today, a year and a half after he returned to skateboarding, Ollie is making remarkable progress with his instructor, Jordan Wells, whose day job is working with special needs children at an Ottawa elementary school. The two have developed a close bond.
“It comes down to the trust that we have for each other, making a lot of these things possible,” said Wells.
Last week, after a few false starts and at least one fall, Ollie successfully “dropped in” to a bowl at The Yard, the indoor skateboard park in City Centre where he takes lessons. The maneuver involves dropping down from a flat surface into a steep bowl, five feet deep, on his skateboard. Wells was coaching him and waiting at the bottom.
Ollie then repeated the trick, cheering each time and hugging Wells.
Another instructor, watching from the sidelines, shook his head in amazement, saying it is one of the scariest things he has ever done.
“The amount of courage it takes to do this is off the charts,” he said.
In December, Ollie did the trick for the first time with an audience — a video crew from the Canadian Cancer Society. After falling twice, Wells told his student he didn’t have to attempt it, but Ollie was determined.
At the top “he took some deep breaths and calmed himself,” said Pickering.
“I held my St. Christopher medallion and said ‘Please help me’,” Ollie recalled.
When he succeeded, members of the video crew were in tears.
The video is part of a new campaign from the Canadian Cancer Society promoting palliative care and urging policy-makers to remove barriers so more people can get access to it.
For Ollie, it was a game-changer during a bleak period. It helped better manage his intense pain. It also provided counselling; art and music therapy; and other support that helped his whole family.
“These things brought the light,” said Pickering. “They gave him purpose to try to get through.”
Respite and end-of-life care are key components of palliative care, said Pickering, but it is about more than that.
Although they never had to take advantage of it, Pickering said Ottawa is lucky to have Roger Neilson House, the pediatric palliative care hospice on the grounds of CHEO for end-of-life care.
“Children spend their last days with their families there in the most beautiful way possible, and are treated with dignity and humanity.”
But only about 15 per cent of people with life-limiting illnesses get access to palliative care, says the Canadian Cancer Society.
While palliative care was part of the support that helped Ollie and his family get through his ordeal, he is now focused firmly on the future. And he is making plans.
“Skateboarding will always be my thing,” he said during an interview with his support dog Hope nearby. “I am focusing all my attention on becoming a pro boarder in the future.” Ollie conceded that he would have to do well at school because he might need another job.
Ollie would also like to be a paralympic athlete. He briefly interrupted an interview to ask Google whether skateboarding was a Paralympic sport. Not yet, but probably soon.
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