‘Gratitude isn’t a big enough word to describe how we feel’
Blood donations, plus a stem cell transplant from his sister, helped Ollie Acosta-Pickering beat cancer during a pandemic
Nine-year-old Ollie Acosta-Pickering and his family, who live in Ottawa, Ont., invite people across Canada to donate blood as a way of celebrating the first anniversary of Ollie’s successful stem cell transplant.
Like many cancer patients, Ollie required many transfusions of red blood cells and platelets over the course of his illness. Following his transplant, he also received a medication derived from plasma.
“Every single one of these products is lifesaving, and we wouldn’t have our Ollie if it weren’t for any or all of them,” says Dawn Pickering, Ollie’s mother.
Ollie’s cancer journey began in November 2019, when he was diagnosed with anaplastic large cell lymphoma. In the months that followed, he endured intensive chemotherapy, infections and relapses of the cancer in his central nervous system. Those relapses cost him his sight.
Then along came the pandemic, which for Ollie was a double threat. His cancer made him highly vulnerable to the virus. In addition, COVID-19 derailed the original plan for a stem cell transplant, his best hope of a cure. Three perfect international stem cell matches had been found through Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry, but flight cancellations and restrictions were putting the timely transport of stem cells at risk, and doctors also worried about the possibility of a donor being infected by the virus.
So the medical team looked instead to Ollie’s sister, Abby, who was just 11 at the time. Tests had determined she was “haploidentical,” a type of partial match for her brother. In the last days of March 2020, the family moved to a condo in Toronto near SickKids Hospital to prepare for Ollie’s transplant. Abby donated her stem cells on March 31, and documented the experience on Youtube to inspire others.
Dawn Pickering (left) and her husband Mario Acosta (right) with their children, Abby and Ollie Acosta-Pickering, in August 2020, just a few weeks after Ollie received a stem cell transplant. Their “Team Ollie” T-shirts include Ollie’s name spelled in Braille.
To the disappointment of the whole family, another frightening relapse of cancer in Ollie’s brain prevented him from receiving the transplant right away, so Abby’s stem cells had to be frozen and stored. Fortunately, Ollie was able to receive a new chemotherapy drug, which put the disease into remission a few months later. That summer, Abby’s cells were thawed for Ollie’s transplant on July 20, 2020 ― a day his family now calls his “re-birthday.”
‘Overachiever’ stem cells to the rescue
Four weeks after the transplant, Ollie had what is called a “chimerism test,” which examines the ratio of donor to recipient DNA in the recipient’s blood or bone marrow. Dawn knew the doctors were looking for a high percentage result. She remembers chatting about it with Abby at the condo while Ollie was recovering in hospital, telling her that a score of 90 per cent would bode well.
“Abby said to me, ‘Well, you know, I think my stem cells are overachievers. I'm pretty sure we can do better than that,’” recalls Dawn. “I thought, ‘From your lips to God's ears. Let’s hope.’”
It seems Abby was right. The next day, Dawn was with Ollie when a doctor arrived, beaming, with the results: the score was 100 per cent. Dawn immediately called Abby and her husband, Mario Acosta, for a video chat.
“Ollie and I were both trying to explain the situation at the same time. It was completely chaotic,” Dawn recalls. “Mario was kind of on overload, saying ‘Everybody just calm down!’ But Abby had understood what we were saying despite all the chaos. I could see her behind her dad. She started to get really excited. And then she started to cry. But they were tears of joy.
“That’s a pretty key moment I think I’ll always remember.”
Ollie Acosta-Pickering has a CNIB Buddy Dog named Hope to help him adjust to life without his sight.
The family is so thankful for all the moments they’ve been able to share since then. They had a “hero day” celebration for Abby on the anniversary of her donation and another celebration for Ollie’s ninth birthday on June 26.
They are also grateful to everyone who showed so much kindness throughout their difficult journey, from the doctors and nurses, to the blood donors, to the pizza chain executive who travelled from Ottawa to Toronto to personally deliver Ollie’s favourite olive and cheese pizza at a critical point in his illness. (That pizza is now called “Ollie’s Pizza,” and for each one purchased, Gabriel Pizza makes a donation to an Ottawa charity that supports children with cancer and their families.)
“I always say that gratitude isn’t a big enough word to describe how we feel about it all,” says Dawn. “And because so many people helped us, we’re so glad to be able to help others.”
From the early days of Ollie’s illness, the family has advocated powerfully for stem cell donation, encouraging all Canadians between the ages of 17 and 35 to join Canadian Blood Services Stem Cell Registry. Gratitude has also inspired Dawn to donate blood regularly and to encourage others to do the same. As the July 20 anniversary of Ollie’s successful transplant drew closer, she set up a Partners for Life team so people could donate in her children’s honour.
The team is called "Donate for Ollie & Abby," and anyone can join it after setting up their donor account. You can do that online or with the GiveBlood app for Apple or Android. After you've signed in to your account, simply select "Partners" from the menu and "join an existing team."
Whether you donate solo or as part of a group, you're supporting patients across Canada who continue to rely on red blood cells, plasma and platelets.
Ollie Acosta-Pickering (right) received a transplant of stem cells from his older sister, Abby Acosta-Pickering (left). Their mother, Dawn Pickering (centre), encouraged people to donate blood in honour of the one-year anniversary of the transplant.
Ollie’s time as a patient in need is still very fresh in Dawn’s memory.
“I can remember watching him receive blood, and saying a silent prayer of thanks to the person who gave this to him,” she says. “We live in an amazing country where if you’re in an accident, if you have an illness, you can rest assured that if you need a blood product it’s going to be there for you.”
“We’ll continue to do whatever we can to get people to keep being donors of blood products.”