Determined Dale Zaporowski has defied all the odds and astounded medics by beating not one but TWO brain tumours. But it has been a tough rollercoaster ride for him and his family for the past six years. AASMA DAY talks to his mum Jacqui to hear Dale’s inspiring tale.
Mummy, Daddy, am I going to die?”
These are the words every parent dreads hearing uttered by their child and fiercely trying to protect Dale, Jacqui and David Zaporowski told him emphatically: “No Dale, you are not going to die” even though they had no idea what the future would hold.
Remembering that painful time, Jacqui, 52, who lives in Ashton, Preston, says: “Dale was only six or seven at the time and was very poorly and he kept asking us if he was going to die.
“He told us that he wanted to discuss something with us in case he died.
“We kept telling him that we didn’t need to talk about anything because he wasn’t going to die.
“Eventually, Dale told us what he wanted to say. He has a teddy called Bertie who he adores and has had since the day he was born.
“Dale said: ‘If I do die, I want you to put Bertie on my grave so I can take him to Heaven with him.’
“That is something no mum ever wants to hear.”
Smiling fondly, Jacqui adds: “Dale still loves Bertie.
“Bertie was a present from my sister, Dale’s aunty Katy, on the day he was born. Dale used to take Bertie to radiotherapy with him and Bertie was his friend in hospital and got him through a lot.”
The family’s ordeal began in April 2008 when Dale was first diagnosed with a brain tumour.
However, his parents had known deep down for a few months before that something was not right with their six-year-old son.
Jacqui, who is married to David, known as Zap with who she also has children Michael, 24, Sadie, 23 and Daniel 21, recalls: “We were living in Penwortham at the time and Dale was six and a pupil at St Mary Magdelen’s Catholic Primary School, the same school that Katy Holmes went to - Dale was in the year below her.
“We first noticed that Dale wasn’t eating properly even though he had never been a fussy eater.
“Then Dale began vomiting in the mornings. He was being sick as soon as he woke up and then he was being sick at school as well and they would ring me to tell me.
“I took Dale to the doctors eight times in four months only to be told there was nothing wrong with him.
“I saw four different doctors at the same surgery but I felt they had all spoken to each other beforehand as before I had even spoken, they seemed to have made their mind up that there was nothing wrong with Dale.
“The doctors made Dale do things like touch his nose, balance on one leg and squeeze their hands and would tell me that everything was fine.
“But we knew there was something wrong.
“Dale was also not eating and it got to the point where all he was eating was cheese and crackers. But when I told the doctors this, they just said maybe he was a fussy eater, even though I knew he wasn’t.
“We noticed things like Dale walking down the stairs by just putting one foot forward instead of striding.
“His balance was also off. We bought him a trampoline for his sixth birthday and he was hanging on to the side of it all the time.
“Dale also could not ride a bike without stabilisers and we knew this was not right at the age of six.”
In the end, Jacqui took Dale to A&E at Royal Preston Hospital and after checking the pressure behind Dale’s eyes, they realised there was a lot of pressure and told Dale’s family he needed a CAT scan.
Jacqui recalls: “It was another week before Dale had the CAT scan and by this time, he was pretty lifeless.
“I remember Zap carrying Dale in and putting him on the CAT scan.
“Within minutes of the CAT scan, a doctor was called and there was shouting saying: ‘Get this child blue-lighted to Pendlebury’ which is where the children’s hospital was in Manchester.
“We were in tears. We were terrified but also felt relief that someone was finally listening to us.
“I had known deep down that there was something serious wrong with Dale even though the doctors kept telling me there wasn’t.
“I had been googling all his symptoms and I kept coming back with a brain tumour.”
Dale had emergency MRI scans at Pendlebury, which is where the children’s hospital used to be in Manchester and specialists told his family they had found something abnormal.
They then revealed they had found a huge mass at the back of Dale’s head and performed lifesaving surgery on April 9 2008 to remove a four centimetre brain tumour from the back of Dale’s head.
Jacqui remembers: “The surgery took hours and afterwards, the doctors told us everything had gone well.
“But when we got to intensive care, we realised that everything was not fine.
“Dale was unable to move, speak, see, swallow or communicate in any way.
“There were tubes everywhere and Dale’s eyes were diverted to the left.
“The left side of his face had fallen and he could not swallow.
“It soon became apparent that Dale could not do anything apart from breathe.
“Doctors told us time would tell and that Dale would improve, but they could not say to what level.
“But Dale has amazed us all and he continues to amaze us every day.
“Doctors thought his speech might be impaired, but it has not.
“I remember the morning he spoke again about five weeks after the surgery.
“It was 6am and the nurse came in to do Dale’s observations and he shouted: ‘No!’ at her.
“I just jumped up and said: ‘He spoke!’.
Slowly, Dale began to improve, but it was a long battle.
He underwent 15 months of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiotherapy. The cancer had spread down his spine, so that needed treatment too.
Dale was fed through a gastrostomy for about 18 months and he had intensive physiotherapy every day.
Jacqui says: “We did not think Dale would walk again, but through his sheer determination, Dale can now walk with a frame although he has a wheelchair too.”
However, just as Dale’s family began thinking the worst was over, in April 2011, it was discovered Dale had suffered a relapse.
Jacqui recalls: “I received a telephone call from the hospital asking me to go in the next day without Dale to speak to the consultant.
“I knew straight away that the brain tumour had come back.
“Dale had had an MRI scan only a few days before so I knew it must be bad news.
“Finding out Dale had suffered a relapse was horrendous. We had always been given the message that if Dale had a relapse, his chances were not good.”
A few days later, Dale suffered a massive seizure while out on a family outing.
Doctors discovered the second brain tumour was at the front of Dale’s head and was three centimetres big.
This time, they used chemotherapy to shrink it before carrying out surgery.
Dale then had more radiotherapy and chemotherapy and doctors warned his family that treatment was just buying him time.
Jacqui says: “I was too frightened to ask ‘how long?’ as I was too scared to hear the answer.
“It was only a few months ago that I finally plucked up the courage to ask.
“The doctor said: ‘I don’t want to tempt fate by saying it out loud, but I think Dale is going to get away with this.’
“It was wonderful to hear this and something we once feared we would never hear.”
Dale is now a pupil at All Hallow’s Catholic High School in Penwortham. He is not on the school curriculum but does his own one-to-one lessons.
Dale suffered damage to his pituitary gland from the radiotherapy so is now having growth hormones.
Dale’s left hand does not work and he cannot extend his wrist on that hand.
He has left side weakness so his balance will always be off and one of his legs grows while the other doesn’t.
Jacqui says: “Dale’s school have been fabulous with him and do everything they can to help him.
“When children have brain damage, it is not a case of catching up. It is about teaching them life skills such as how to handle money and writing shopping lists.
“Dale is now 12 and doing really well. His visual memory is more precise than his working memory.
“Dale has kept his sense of humour throughout everything and he never complains or uses his disability to get out of things.
“Dale is a real joker and loves making people laugh. He is very kind and has a lot of empathy for others. I think this is a result of everything he has been through.
“It is only now six years on that we are finally starting to feel some normality.
“Dale remembers what it was like to be able to run around like other children.
“He talks about his ‘other life’ when he could do things.
“I am just so glad we took Dale to A&E when we did. I think if we had left it any longer, we would have lost him.
“It is very difficult as you trust doctors so if they tell you everything is OK, you want to believe them.
“I would encourage any parent to trust their gut instinct and go straight to A&E if you believe there is something serious wrong with your child.“We are so proud of Dale and his fighting spirit.
“I pray every day that we have our miracle and my heart goes out to all the children and families who have had to face this cruel disease.”