“I went bald during this part, when did you go bald? My hair’s growing back now and it’s spiky, yours is fluffy. How long are you going to grow your hair? Are you having the same blood as me today?”
It’s conversations like these no parent ever hopes to hear that helped then-four year old’s Ted and Isla make sense of the grown-up world of cancer treatment.
Diagnosed with leukaemia just three weeks apart, these toddlers were brought together from opposite ends of Sydney in what can only be described as the silver lining to an awful situation.
For Ted’s parents, his diagnosis came without warning, with just a mere 12 hours between bike riding with his grandmother the day before and being unable to walk on his own.
“We found out [about Ted’s diagnosis] a few days before his fourth birthday. Around midnight one night he started complaining that his bum hurt, and by the time we went to the chemist first thing the next day, he’d spiralled pretty quickly,” Ted’s mum, Natalee told Mamamia.
“When we got him to the hospital, he couldn’t hold his own weight, if he tried to walk or stand he would collapse to the ground. But there were no real indications before that, he hadn’t been sick, there wasn’t any bruising, nothing like the common symptoms.
“On the Friday evening, they told us he had some kind of infection, but we spent the weekend being told, ‘he’ll be fine, he’ll pick up soon’. But by the Monday, we got the feeling it might not be that simple. We’d had a conversation on the Sunday and [Ted’s father] Andrew had said to me, ‘don’t worry, it’s not like it’s going to be leukaemia’ – when we found out that’s what it was, it felt like all the oxygen had been sucked out of the air, you couldn’t breathe.”
Despite the small comfort of knowing what was wrong and having a plan moving forward, beginning Ted’s treatment was daunting. But Natalee believes the friendship between Ted and Isla, and their families, made all the difference.
"In the hospital, they put you in a shared room of four families. You're there for quite a long time with other families, and as the days pass you start talking with the other parents. Andrew and I started chatting to [Isla's Dad] Darrin, which prompted the kids to start asking each other questions," Natalee recalled.
"Isla had Lego, which was probably the biggest draw card for Ted, they started playing together and the rest was history. Our two families clicked, we found it really easy to talk to Isla's parents, and the kids found it easy to talk to each other."
From the first day they met, Ted and Isla were able communicate about their experiences in a way their parents just weren't able to, because no matter how much their parents loved and supported them, they were not the ones who were, as Ted put it, 'going to go bald and look like a snake', Natalee explained.
"We didn't talk to Ted about [the cancer], we thought, 'oh he's too young'. He was only four so we said everything was 'medicine', but obviously the kids were absorbing what was going on around them more than we thought. I guess because the adults weren't talking about it to them, they talked to each other.
"Having someone else who was going through it with him, that was a big comfort to Ted. When their treatments lined up, we would request they be seated together and often that would end up with our two families in the room together. It bonded us, it was private time and we could chat about what we felt, which made it an easier ride for both the kids and the parents."
A year on, Ted has just hit his one year remission mark, with Isla only a few weeks behind. Natalee and Darrin, who are both NSW police officers, now work together, and the families are still in contact every week.
"The kids are really cute, if it's either of their birthdays, they'll make a video and send it to the other one, or they'll FaceTime. If Isla sees Lego or something she knows Ted would like, they'll send a message from Isla through.
"When they get together, their personalities are a total contrast to each other. Ted is full of energy, just your rough and tumble stereotypical boy, whereas Isla is such a leader, she laughs really hard at his jokes but she pulls him into line. She'll give a look and say 'Teddy bear', and he knows to pull himself in."
On the 20th of October, Darrin and Natalee will be participating in Endure for a Cure - a 12-hour cycle challenge in support of Children’s Cancer Institute. They'll be riding to raise money for the research that saved the lives of their children and may be yet to save them again, as for the families of children with cancer, remission doesn't always mean the end.
"The kids are still having monthly blood tests to check and we can have mild anxiety in the lead up to these that everything's not going to be alright, but having that support and understanding without having to explain every detail is really special too."
To donate to Ted and Isla's team, Little Legends, you can visit their fundraising pages.