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    From Five to Four

    Salvationists from Newfoundland and Labrador talk about living in the shadow of illness and grief. November 18, 2021 by Giselle Randall
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    Feature
    Kathleen and Darren Thompson hold a picture of their son, Andrew
    Kathleen and Darren Thompson hold a picture of their son, Andrew

    (Above) Kathleen and Darren Thompson hold a picture of their son, Andrew, who passed away at 18 after a long struggle with an undiagnosed illness

    It started the summer when Andrew was 12. He had a fever that wouldn’t go down and spent a week at the children’s hospital in St. John’s, N.L., where doctors discovered his white blood cell count was low. Several months later, after they had moved to Ontario, he had a nosebleed on the bus home from school.

    “We couldn’t get it to stop,” recalls his father, Darren Thompson. Their local hospital sent them to the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto right away.

    “That was the start of a five-year journey going back and forth to Sick Kids for weekly transfusions,” says Darren. “Sometimes we’d be there a few hours, sometimes he’d stay overnight. Every trip was an unknown.”

    Andrew’s illness overshadowed his adolescence, but at 18, he was looking forward, talking about getting his GED—it had been difficult for him to attend school regularly—and starting to plan his future.

    “He was just a boy trying to get his life back,” says Darren.

    Searching for an Answer

    Throughout Andrew’s teenage years, doctors struggled to pinpoint the underlying cause of his symptoms. At first, he was diagnosed with immune thrombocytopenia, a blood disorder characterized by a shortage of platelets—the cells that help stop bleeding. But over time, they realized it was more complicated than that.

    “It was an autoimmune disease, but they didn’t know what kind,” says his mother, Kathleen Thompson. “Each time a different blood group was affected, and so they kept chasing, trying to figure out what was going on.”

    As a preventive measure, Andrew had regular transfusions of gamma globulin, which decreases the immune system’s ability to attack itself, and was also put on high doses of a steroid, to control some of his symptoms.

    Darren and Kathleen had to watch for fevers, as well as petechiae (clusters of small red or purple spots on the skin) around his wrists and ankles. Andrew also had nodules in his lungs that couldn’t be explained. Hospital staff called his lung X-ray “the snowstorm X-ray” because it was white instead of black.

    Photo of Andrew, Leslie and Kyle
    From left, Kyle, Andrew and Leslie

    His illness affected the whole family, including his younger siblings, Leslie and Kyle, who struggled to live a normal life while their parents juggled work, medical appointments and hospital visits, and tried to help Andrew with his feelings of fear and anxiety.

    “Why Is He Going Through This?”

    In March 2010, after blood work, Andrew was admitted to St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, Ont.

    “We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” says Darren. “They would start treating what they thought it was, but after a couple of days travelling down that road, they would back away and say, ‘No, it’s not this, we’ve got to change our strategy.’ ”

    About six weeks later, Andrew was diagnosed with leukemia and transferred to McMaster Hospital in Hamilton.

    “This is good,” Andrew responded. “Now they will be able to treat it.”

    But within a couple of days, the medical team advised that Andrew did not have leukemia, and the search for answers started again. When he was moved to the critical care unit (CCU) a week later, Kathleen was told he was very, very sick. She voiced the most difficult question any mother could ask.

    “Are you saying that Andrew could die?” She asked if their close family should be coming to Ontario from out of province. The doctor replied that it was probably a good idea.

    Andrew was having trouble breathing, and his major organs were starting to shut down. When they put him on kidney dialysis, his heart stopped. He went on life support at 11 a.m. on Sunday, May 9.

    “It was supposed to give his body a break—to help him stabilize,” says Kathleen. “The doctor said he used up all the tools in his toolbox.”

    “We said, ‘We love you,’ thinking that we’d see him again,” adds Darren. “We knew things were serious, but we didn’t realize he was terminally ill.”

    “I didn’t think it was fair. It was very hard to understand why he was taken from us.”

    As Andrew fought for his life in the CCU, Darren stepped outside for a moment, overwhelmed. He raised his fist to punch the concrete wall. Major Wilbert Abbott, their corps officer at the time, grabbed his hand.

    “That’s not going to do you any good, Darren,” he said.

    “Why is this happening?” Darren cried out. “Why is he going through this?”

    “We don’t know why,” Major Abbott replied. “And when the time comes to find out why, it won’t matter.”

    It’s the question at the heart of suffering, one that the Bible answers with another mystery— a God who came to be with us, who understands and shares our suffering, who is present with us in our pain. All through Andrew’s illness, Majors Bertha and Wilbert Abbott were present, a constant source of encouragement. And they were there when he passed away later that night.

    The Pain of Grief

    After Andrew’s death, they had to come to terms with being a family of four instead of five. “We were forced to join a club we didn’t sign up for,” Leslie says.

    Darren slowly sank into depression.

    “I was bitter and angry,” he says. “I didn’t think it was fair. It was very hard to understand why he was taken from us.”

    At work, driving a city bus, he had flashbacks of Andrew in the hospital, draped in a white sheet. On days off, he would drive aimlessly, not caring where he ended up.

    “Things started to eat away at me, to destroy everything that felt normal,” he says. “I was struggling to make it through the day.”

    Darren and Kathleen both grew up in The Salvation Army, but now Darren started to question his faith. “Did I really believe? Or was I just in the Army because my parents were?”

    When Leslie and Kyle started to ask if he was OK, he felt even worse—that he was failing as a husband and father. The thought crept in that it might be easier if he wasn’t around.

    One evening, home by himself, he realized that the pill bottle on the counter was looking tempting. “When Kathleen came home,” he recalls, “I said, ‘You’ve got to take me to the hospital. I’m afraid I’m going to hurt myself.’ ”

    After spending several days at a residential facility that offers specialized mental-health care, Darren returned home, more stable, but still heartbroken.

    “That was the start of not wanting to attend church anymore,” he says. “It felt hypocritical to go and sing and pray. I was thinking, God, you might be there, but you took my son. So, I started to stay home. And one week turned into two and then three. Next thing we knew, it was a few years.”

    Cherishing Memories

    But as time passed, Darren realized he was ready to return—especially after moving back to Newfoundland and Labrador last year, where they both grew up. Kathleen took a teaching position in Labrador City, and they started attending the Army corps.

    “I was hesitant at first, but after we started going, we made friends and got involved,” says Darren. “I came to the point where I realized that I need God to get through. And he’s letting me know in small ways that he’s taking care of me. A couple of weeks ago, it was like the words of one chorus were chosen just for me. It felt like he was beside me.”

    For Kathleen, faith has been a steady companion throughout her grief. A vision of Andrew walking toward the open arms of the Father has brought comfort. “Deep down, I always knew that Andrew was from God, and he was God’s,” she says. “I know he’s OK, where he is. I just have to deal with being OK where I am, without him.”

    Over the years, they have intentionally tried to cherish their memories of Andrew, to laugh together as a family. “We’ve really fought through a lot of our grief with humour, and remembering the fun times,” says Kathleen.

    Andrew was bright, compassionate and stubborn. He loved video games, rainy days and cheesy fries from Taco Bell. He was enrolled in a music program at a school of the arts. He loved Swiss Chalet, so they go every year on his birthday. He gave good hugs.

    “I still hurt—that’s not going to go away,” says Darren. “But Kathleen has said many times that she would rather have had Andrew for 18 years than to not have had him at all. That’s been hitting home. We had 18 great years. Wonderful years.”

    They are sharing their story in the hope that it might help someone else. “Maybe in talking about what we’ve gone through, and the difficulty we’ve had since Andrew’s been gone, it will help another family who’s lost a child, and doesn’t know where to turn,” say Darren and Kathleen. “Maybe our story is something that someone needs to hear.”

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    Comment

    On Friday, November 19, 2021, Rose Bladen said:

    I am not a crier, but this made me cry. Love you guys. You are stronger than you realize. God loves you both very much . Andrew is safe in the arms of Jesus Waiting for the great reunion. Stay strong. Love and Prayers. Rose and Roy.

    On Friday, November 19, 2021, Mariana said:

    As a witness to the pain this family endured I was also able to see what true love really looks like. Kathleen exemplified for me what strength and grace really are. Grateful to know her and through her, her family, and I will forever keep you all in my prayers! Thank you for your story and testimony of God's love.

    On Friday, November 19, 2021, Shirley Chaulk-Oldford said:

    May the Lord continue to strengthen you and give you peace. I know the pain of losing a child in death. Thank the Lord for the precious memories that we have to hold dear to our heart. Praying that God will use your story to comfort someone else who has lost a child. May the Lord bless you and your family...hugs.

    On Friday, November 19, 2021, Babs Milne said:

    Love and prayers for the family ❤️

    On Thursday, November 18, 2021, Connie Francis said:

    I know the pain I just lost my only baby to cancer 💔…the pain will Never stop my heart is broken and can’t heal I long to see him In heaven🙏🙏🙏🙏

    On Thursday, November 18, 2021, Connie said:

    Very touching story! I know all too well the pain and grief of losing a loved one. When I got to the place in your story where Kathlene said "it is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved"! My exact words to my 9 year old who lost both her Nan and pop in a motor vehicle accident. We hang on to our friends, family and beautiful memories, learn how to cope day by day! Know that I think of your family more often than you think. Stay strong, even when you feel weakest! Hugs Connie Gill

    On Thursday, November 18, 2021, lilian cardy said:

    SENDING LOVE AND PRAYERS TO ALL ASKING OUR HEAVENLY FATHER TO SURROUND YOU ALL WITH HIS LOVE AND PEACE. ANDREW IS NOW WITH OUR LOVING SAVIOUR ALL PAIN NOW GONE. BLESS YOU AS YOU MOVE FORWARD TOGETHER AND REMEMBER THE LOVE YOU HAD TOGETHER FOR 18 YEARS. XXX

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