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The Choice by Julie Gunderson

I was there when my sister’s water broke when she was pregnant with Olivia. We were camping in Nordegg at a remote site and Brett was off fishing. I was there when the doctors told Wendy and Brett that Olivia had a brain bleed and would need surgery. I was there when they found out Olivia needed a shunt and would likely need it the rest of her life. I was there when everything seemed so normal and Olivia was growing up like all other kids becoming a little independent person and big sister. I was there when Wendy phoned me to tell me something was very wrong with Olivia at age nine, and that they were taking out part of her skull. From Calgary, I drove up to Edmonton with my kids to make sure she knew I would always be there. I was there when Olivia was so sick during the Christmas of 2012, I changed our usual Christmas plans to make sure my family, my husband and kids could be there too.

My husband has taken to coming with me at these critical moments. We were there two weeks ago when Olivia began her current battle with her illness. As we drove to get something at a local store, my sister told me that it would be strange for her to go through this without me. I don’t think I realized that being there meant so much to her as I know she would have moved mountains for me if the tables were turned. I have often taken on the role of director when I could not be there for Wendy and Brett in person, telling my Mom what she needed to do, and instructing my Dad on when to talk and when to listen. I was there when Wendy and Brett needed me and I will always be there for them. There is no other choice.

Choice is a funny thing. Wendy and Brett did not choose for Olivia to be a sick kid – the situation chose them. Instead of allowing the situation to totally define their family, Wendy and Brett chose to change the world with the Neurosurgery Kids Fund. They chose to allow their friends and family to be a part of this transformation, for which I am very grateful. They chose to share Olivia’s story with the world in hopes it helps someone else. They chose hope, which makes me incredibly proud of them both.  It is when I look at their choice to hope for more for Olivia and their family that I realize there is no room in my head for selfish thoughts about how Olivia’s illness has affected my normal life. I now choose to look forward to the day when Olivia runs in the backyard with my kids like she did just a few short years ago.

With all the anger, helplessness, worry and guilt this unexpected choice has brought, it also brought joy.

With all the anger, helplessness, worry and guilt this unexpected choice has brought, it also brought joy.  Without Olivia, there would be no Camp Everest where an awkward engineer like me learns the pure joy of playing with “medical kids.” (I have to admit, by the first year, I thought engineering a pipeline would’ve been easier.)  Olivia has allowed me to develop the Hope Stones program, which brings me endless joy. Not only do I get to count the beads with my six-year-old daughter, I get the notes of thanks from parents who tell me how their child has strung the beads together and the joy this has brought their family. It has allowed me to celebrate the joy of Olivia’s good days and weeks and months with Wendy and Brett, those days when she is a stubborn, attitude-filled 10-year-old child. I am sure there will be more of these days in our near future.

A chronically ill child affects all members of a family, both immediate and extended. I have learned that this comes with a range of emotions and thoughts – some good and some bad. But most of all it comes with deciding if you are in for the long haul, and if you are, choosing to always be there for support in both times of worry and times of joy.


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