Challenges to overcome

Walking to the Mount Kosciuszko summit from Thredbo is no easy feat. When the conditions reach freezing, the 21km journey becomes even more challenging.

However, for St Patrick’s Primary School students Elliot and Gemma Wisman Santamaria, it is an important tradition they continue in their father’s memory.

Michael Wisman was just shy of his 39th birthday when he lost his four-year battle with bowel cancer. His wife, Helen, says they never spoke much of his wishes for the family after his departure, as he never wanted to live without hope that he could overcome the insidious disease.

Instead, the father of two continued to support his family, working when he could in between treatments and operations. Despite the setbacks he encountered, Michael also tried his best to be a “fun dad”, at which he was exceedingly successful if his children’s memories are the test.

“Our dad was very playful,” says Elliot, 10. “He was a great tickler and liked to be silly with us.”

Gemma, 8, says he was a good dad. “He gave great cuddles and lots of treats,” she says.

In March last year, on the eve of COVID-19 lockdowns, Michael’s life on Earth ended.

“In a way, the lockdown was good as it provided time for the three of us to be together and mourn together,” Helen says, reflecting on when she lost her partner of 20 years. 

“It was a time when the whole world was different, because of COVID-19, so it wasn’t only us getting used to a new normal, it was the whole world; just that our new normal was not only with COVID-19, but also without Michael.

“However, it also meant we could not physically seek the support of most family. Most of our family live overseas, and I haven’t seen them since before we lost Michael. They would have all loved to be around to say goodbye to Michael and be here to support us all.”

However, the family has received great support from their neighbours, friends, and the St Patrick’s Primary School community in Swansea.

“We’ve received lots of food, which has been great,” says Elliot. Gemma says that lasagne has been a favourite.

As a family, they have adopted a saying.

“Thanks to them,” they say in unison, with smiles on their faces.

“We are so grateful to everyone in the community who have been so helpful and supportive,” Helen says.

The community’s generosity has not been limited to dropping off parcels of food. It supported Gemma and Elliot as they embarked on their third climb of the highest mountain peak on Australia’s mainland for Rare Cancers Australia’s Kosi Challenge. 

Along with their mother, the duo has raised more than $2,000 for their efforts this year. A substantial portion of proceeds from their school’s annual St Patrick’s Day fundraiser was donated to support the family’s efforts.

“We wanted to raise money and awareness about rare cancers so that people – other people like our dad – can receive better help,” Elliot says.

Funds raised have gone to Rare Cancers Australia, whose mission is to improve awareness, support and access to the best treatments and technologies for Australians with rare and less common cancers.

Currently, there is little support for people with rare cancer. The mortality rate is extremely high. Every year there are more than 52,000 diagnoses of rare and less common cancers and about 25,000 deaths. Coupled with the exorbitant financial burden of non-subsidised treatments, most patients struggle to access information and care.

The first two times the children did the climb, their father was by their side every step of the way, despite his illness.

“He just wanted to see us happy,” Helen says.

Michael was just 35 years of age when he received the unimaginable diagnosis.

“When Michael initially went to the doctor’s surgery, we thought it might be irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease. To find out he had terminal cancer took us entirely by surprise.

“The children were so young and Michael fought so hard to stay with us. He even took part in a clinical trial with the hope of getting better.”

But it wasn’t to be.

“It’s been pretty tough adjusting to life without Michael. Even when he was sick and unable to do much, he was still here. I feel a lot of responsibility now raising the children on my own, without their father here to confide in.”

But she says the kids have been “amazing”.

“I don’t know what I would do without them. Gemma and Elliot are so resilient, caring, helpful and supportive. I think they’ve recognised that even though they’ve lost their dad, I’ve lost my husband and best friend too.”

The family hope to continue taking on the Kosi Challenge each year in Michael’s honour.

“We hope that by doing it, our friends will learn more about rare cancers, and maybe they’ll want to help when they get older,” Elliot says.

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Lizzie Snedden Image
Lizzie Snedden

Lizzie is Team Leader Content for the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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