Absolutely blown away by the kindness of strangers

When Jesse Sanford woke up with a sore leg while on a family holiday in Wānaka he “brushed it off” as a niggle.

“I thought it was probably cramp, I had some pain but nothing too bad. Over the next few days I started getting pins and needles, and it kept getting worse.”

Unknown to him at the time, the then 15-year-old was experiencing symptoms of ewing sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that makes up just 1% of all cancers in children and adolescences younger than 15.

His mum, Anne-Maree Thomas, took him to his GP and the next day he found himself in Invercargill Hospital undergoing various tests.

“When they did my first lot of scans there was a big collection of something underneath my hip about the size of an egg. They tried to get a biopsy, but because the lump was so hard, they couldn’t get a sample,” says Jesse.

Believing it was an infection, doctors sent Jesse home with antibiotics, but a follow-up appointment revealed the family’s worst fears. Jesse had cancer.

“Nothing can prepare you for a moment like that,” says Anne-Maree.

“I turned to Jesse and said I’ve got your back, we’re going to give this b*tch a run for our money and we’re going to take it on Southland style.”

And they did.

Just days later, in August 2022, Anne-Maree and Jesse relocated to Christchurch for further tests, followed by 25 rounds of intensive chemotherapy treatment.

While Jesse spent most of his time at Christchurch Hospital, Anne-Maree found a second home at Rānui House.

“I just loved everything about Rānui House.  They have the best staff in the world – they’re compassionate and professional, and there’s always someone to talk to. It’s the fact that you can sit down for five minutes and just be a normal person.”

Anne-Maree stayed at Rānui House for a total of 313 nights and says she found peace in the ‘small’ things, like sitting down with the visiting Hato Hone St John pet therapy dog, Luna, at the end of a long day in hospital.

She enjoyed Wednesday family afternoon-teas, as well as the ‘wrap-around’ activities provided by Rānui House, with support from its dedicated team of volunteers.

“We were absolutely blown away by the kindness of strangers – the volunteers who have come in and gifted their time to help, when they could be out with friends, partying or playing sport. I don’t think I would have made it through the last 10 months without them.”

For Jesse, knowing his mum was well looked after enabled him to focus on his treatment.

“Mum was so happy to be at Rānui House, so for me it meant that I didn’t need to worry. Just knowing she was at a place that felt like home was a real relief,” he says.

Between chemotherapy sessions, when he was well enough, Rānui House became Jesse’s refuge, and he enjoyed spending time away from the hospital environment.

“It was just so nice to sleep in a comfortable bed away from all the machines at the hospital. I had a lot of friends come visit me at Rānui House, so it really was my happy place.

“The staff and volunteers were just amazing. They all went out of their way to make sure we had everything we needed and it was awesome to meet people going through a similar journey.”

In December 2022 Jesse underwent major surgery to remove any active cancer cells from his pelvis. He’s since been declared cancer-free and has returned to his home in Invercargill, where he’s enjoying the company of his friends and has his sights set on one day becoming a paramedic.

On 12 June 2023 we had the pleasure of farewelling Jesse and his mum Anne-Maree as they returned home after an epic 313 night stay – fair to say it was a great day for Jesse, Anne-Maree and our team.