The Brief and Beautiful Life of Sarah Watkin

Thornhill girl passes after two-year battle with cancer; leaves behind legacy

“Hope is looking for something good, even against all odds, no matter what” — Mark Watkin

She was fun and energetic, artistic and adventurous. She was playful and silly just as quick as she was responsible. She was the classic first-born and doting sister. On some days she liked picking worms and bugs out of the mud, on others, she pranced around in pretty dresses and high heels just like Princess Elsa from Frozen. She was charming and courageous and had a wise-beyond-years soul.
Sometimes she even got away with eating Rice Krispies squares for dinner and sitting in the passenger seat of the car for a quick joyride around the block. When her golden brown locks began falling out, she continued to make crafts and draw colourful pictures in her hospital bed after cracking jokes with the resident clown down the hall. When her strength was zapped from chemotherapy, she continued to spread joy with her giggle and infectious smile, eyes twinkling and nose all scrunched up in pure happiness. She unanimously captured the hearts of her family and the thousands of friends and strangers who followed her ups and downs on Facebook. Olaf the snowman, in a touching scene from one of her favourite animated movies, perfectly describes her effect on so many lives: “Some people are worth melting for.”

Sadly, in the early morning hours of Nov. 2, 2014, Sarah Watkin of Thornhill, Ont., passed away after bravely battling a rare and extremely aggressive form of blood cancer. She was seven years old.

During the last two years of her brief yet beautiful life, Sarah heroically brought awareness to the urgent need of donors through blood and stem cell drives held in her name. Sarah leaves behind a legacy her family and countless supporters are determined to carry on. “In this world, Sarah’s name stands for a lot of good,” said father Mark Watkin during an interview for City Life Magazine at his home this past September. “If we keep going, and keep putting her face to childhood cancer, it’s worth it. It won’t help Sarah, but it will help somebody else out there.” Because of Sarah, so far four people — and possibly more in the future — have found life-saving stem cell donor matches through the OneMatch Stem Cell and Marrow Network.

Sarah was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in October 2012, after what her parents believed to be a case of strep throat. Her health began deteriorating quickly from the uncommon cancer, which spreads rapidly and unforgivingly in the blood system. She was admitted as an in-patient at the Hospital for Sick Children to undergo chemotherapy, which kept the cancer at bay before its vicious return in December 2012. More rounds of intense chemo and blood and platelet transfusions followed until Sarah’s cancer finally stabilized. Her first relapse was the impetus for Sarah’s Drive for Hope, a Facebook page started by her parents, Mark and Leah Watkin, who began preparing themselves for the possibility of needing a stem cell donor to save Sarah.

When treatment fails and cancer proves to be persistent and aggressive in a patient, some children with AML can be treated with a stem cell transplant from a matched and suitable donor. Sarah’s Drive for Hope immediately sparked an outpouring of support from the community and across Canada, attracting thousands of people who ventured out to drives to get swabbed. When Sarah relapsed for the second time in October 2013, the Watkins fiercely held onto hope for Sarah’s stem cell match to materialize. But after 17 stem cell and blood donor drives held in her name, no match was ever found for her.

AML develops when blood stem cells in the bone marrow no longer grow or behave normally. These abnormal cells, or leukemic cells, develop quickly and suddenly, crowding out normal blood cells and preventing them from transporting oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from the issues, and staving off infection, reports the Canadian Cancer Society website.

Each year, at least 250 Canadian children are newly diagnosed with some type of leukemia. AML accounts for about 15 per cent of childhood leukemia diagnoses, with the chance of disease-free survival sitting at around 55 to 60 per cent.

Because Sarah had no stem cell donor match and her cancer proved particularly forceful, her only chance for a cure was haploidentical transplantation — a half-match bone marrow transplant that involves matching a patient’s tissue type to one of her parents. Leah and Mark were both tested to identify Sarah’s best half-match, with Leah’s cells proving to have greater compatibility with Sarah’s to fight cancer on a cellular level.

The grave reality of a life cut short came less than five months after the half-match bone marrow procedure, when doctors declared her cancer had returned for the third time. The chance of a cure for leukemia drops dramatically after transplant, more so if it comes back multiple times and very shortly after the procedure.

Despite everything, Mark and Leah continued to demonstrate a remarkably positive outlook on life for the sake of Sarah and her siblings, two-and-a-half-year-old Elizabeth and Matthew, who will turn one in December. “What’s important to our family is to keep smiling, to have joy,” said Leah as she readied herself over the course of Sarah’s final days.

Just this past summer, the Watkins embarked on a whirlwind of adventures, packing 10 years worth of summers into one as they explored Disney World, Toronto’s Ripley Aquarium and the Bowmanville Zoo. Sarah got to walk down the aisle with her father at her uncle’s summer wedding.

In the months leading up to her death, the Watkins continued to push for stem cell donor awareness while creating lasting memories with their children that they shared on Sarah’s Drive for Hope Facebook page. Many of their updates and photos received thousands of likes, shares and comments from people who had never met Sarah but felt transformed by her. “Sarah has made all of us better, less selfish. I’ve been a blood donor for years but I recently joined One Match in her name … [Sarah’s] my personal hero,” one reader wrote.

According to the Canadian Blood Services’ One Match Stem Cell and Marrow Network, at any given time, there are close to 1,000 patients in Canada searching for an unrelated donor for a stem cell transplant. There is also an urgent need for blood, as children with cancer often require up to five donations of blood each week.

Sarah’s passing leaves a gaping hole in the hearts of her family, her friends and the supporters who followed every step of her journey with tears and unanswered prayers for a miracle. But as the Watkins have proved, solace can be found in the feeling of hope. Hope in humanity. Hope for one more day. All they can hope for now is that Sarah’s journey inspires additional potential donors to step forward, and more funding to go toward researching a cure. “What is hope? What is Sarah’s Drive for Hope? What does hope mean for every person who is fighting cancer?” wrote Mark in a post on October 20. In the same positive vein the Watkins have maintained throughout it all, he answers for all of us: “Hope is looking for something good, even against all odds, no matter what.”

Go to www.blood.ca to become a stem cell or blood donor in Sarah’s honour.

Visit www.facebook.com/pages/Sarahs-Drive-for-Hope
Donations for the family can be made at www.gofundme.com/Avoqxo

Services will be held for Sarah today at Steeles Memorial Chapel, 350 Steeles Ave. W.

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