Sam, an eight-year-old boy from Airdrie who is living with Cerebal Palsy and Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, recently was able to partake in a train ride from Banff to Vancouver.
The trip was offered by Starlight Canada, an organization that, for over 30 years, has been spreading joy to sick kids across the country through a unique blend of hospital-to-home programs designed for the whole family.
The Rocky Mountaineer, which offers luxury train journeys through the Rocky Mountains, hosted 10 seriously ill children and their families on the two-day journey. According to a press release, travelling on the last train of the season on this route, the double-decker train (complete with glass ceilings) offered families a chance to take in the scenic views of the Rocky Mountains, enjoy live entertainment from caricature artists, cookie-decorating with the train chefs, and one-on-one time with television personality, Rick Campanelli.
“His two favourite things included playing bingo with Captain Starlight, and all of the popcorn,” said Sam's mother, Kristina. “The train trip was great, they made it so much fun for the kids.”
Starlight Canada's resident superhero, Captain Starlight, was also along for the ride, providing extra entertainment for all of the kids to enjoy, the release stated.
Kristina said she had initially been looking at possible trips to take her family on, but with COVID-19 restrictions still impacting international travel, ideas like Disney World, Lego Land, and Universal Studios were out of the question.
She said she found out about this particular Starlight Canada excursion and applied to see if she could get her family involved, given her son Sam is obsessed with trains.
“Anything involving trains, he loves,” Kristina said. “When we saw this come up, I thought it would be wonderful.”
With Sam’s chronic conditions, Kristina had looked at numerous options to fulfil a wish for her son. With either expenses or travel restrictions getting in the way, she said the train ride was the perfect solution.
Sam was already living in semi-isolation due to his heart condition prior to the pandemic, according to Kristina. When restrictions started to be enacted provincially and locally, the family was in even more of a lockdown situation.
Kristina said when she applied for the Starlight Canada excursion, she knew the time away with other families would be good for everyone, although she didn’t believe her family would be one of the lucky chosen few that got to participate.
“I was in tears,” she said, when she learned the family had been selected.
“Starlight has done such wonderful things for our family.”
The experience was kept a surprise for Sam and his 11-year-old sister, Kate.
Although Sam is only eight years old, He has already been through his share of life hurdles. He was born with a heart condition called Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome, which is a birth defect that affects normal blood flow through the heart.
Kristina said not long after being born, Sam went into cardiogenic shock, meaning his body was shutting down. She added he had to be taken to the emergency room at the Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary.
“They resuscitated him in the trauma bay, and that is when we found out he was born with only half of a heart,” she said. “It had gone unnoticed until that point.”
Despite his young age, Sam has already had five major heart surgeries, all which occurred before he turned five years old. The most recent surgery was in 2018.
“We have spent probably over 300 days in the hospital [in] total, just for his surgeries, colds, stomach flues, and everything else,” Kristina said. “He’s had a really rough go.”
While life has been difficult for Sam to this point, Kristina said his surgery in 2018 was a success, and will keep his heart working until a transplant can be secured.
“At some point, Sam’s heart is going to fail, and we know that, so the longer he has with his own heart, the better,” she said.
Since the surgery in 2018 and prior to the pandemic, Sam was able to finally keep up with his friends and live a somewhat normal life. As he has mostly been in isolation for his safety for the last 20 months due to COVID-19, Kristina said the trip through Starlight Canada was exactly what the family needed.
“It was really nice to experience this,” she said. “We had so much fun.”