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SEA student with Leukaemia shows strength

(left) Sidara and her mom

By Kaelanne Jordan


While most students writing the Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) Examination hope of attaining bragging rights for securing their first-choice secondary school, Sidara ‘Sid’ Davida Akalloo shares a different perspective. Akalloo, a student at Grant Memorial Presbyterian School, San Fernando is determined to not only make her parents and teachers proud, but to write the exam on behalf of her five ward mates at the Just Because Foundation (JBF) Unit, Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt Hope, who were unable to sit this year’s exam.

Akalloo was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia (ALL), a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow, at 10 years old. The 11-year-old told Catholic News she is very “anxious” ahead of exam day, Thursday, March 31. She shared her first choice is Naparima Girls’ High School and St Joseph’s Convent, her second choice.

Since Sidara is in active treatment, she will sit the exam in a separate room from her peers.

“I really wish I could be in the same room with them on that day and I wish I could have hugged them….I really wish it was different,” she said.

The journey with ALL has been “pretty hard” on Sidara and her family, but there were “good” moments. She explained, “I learnt that small things matter, and that family is the best thing to have because before I didn’t really know I had a supportive family, but now I’m very familiar with them… and even strangers…knowing strangers can do so much for this one person….”

Her mother Simi told Catholic News, she initially did not want Sidara to write this year’s SEA.

She began, “We have to be real about the situation and look at it for what it is. …”

Simi explained that there were five children on the JBF ward, due to write SEA, stricken with cancer. “And we were talking and one of them came up to her on his wheelchair and he said, ‘All the best, Sid’. And his mom said he was supposed to write that exam too and he cannot; she had to pull him from it. And it’s then we realised Sid was the only one going forward of the five… and you know she said, ‘Mommy, I will do this for them’.’”

One of the five passed recently. “And she was good friends with him. They spent quite some time in the same room in the hospital….For us, it is very frightening because we are seeing a little trend with that age group. And that has been our greatest fear,” she said.

Sidara’s diagnosis came April 2021, 11 months ago. Her frontline treatment involved 10 months of chemotherapy, long hospital stays, brief memory loss, two bouts of pancreatitis, pneumonia, and low oxygen levels.

Through it all, Sidara and her mother, Simi, credited the staff and students of Grant Memorial, staff at the JBF and even strangers for establishing themselves as support systems.

She mentioned that on March 18, a women’s group, Soroptimist International of San Fernando hosted a 5K in support of Sidara.

“These ladies, some of them are walking with a stick and they decided to make that walk for her and you know, she was really overwhelmed to see how these people, people she has never known cared enough to do that for her. And it was the first time we have taken her out,” Simi said.

Though Hindus, Simi revealed that they have encountered persons of varied faiths, from pastors to priests who have been praying continuously for Sidara. She mentioned that Presentation College, San Fernando hosted an interfaith prayer service for Sidara.

“The kindness of people…people say Trinidad gone through and people use all kinds of negative words to describe us, but you know what, I am telling you from my own experience, Trinidad is still a great place and we do have great people. And once we still have that we could regroup as a nation.”

On a typical day, Sidara’s parents, teachers at Presentation College (David) and Rio Claro West Secondary (Simi) take turns caring for Sidara.

While Standard 5 students returned to physical classes February 7, Sidara was facilitated via online schooling.

Daily, she would complete a Mathematics, Creative Writing and English mock exam which would be graded by her teacher.

For Simi, Sidara’s diagnosis has been emotional and psychologically taxing, but it has also been a journey of growth and faith.

Using Sidara’s motto: ‘Small things matter’, Simi shared during Sidara’s hospitalisation, she worried about her high cancer cells. In response, Sidara commented, “Mommy, I know the numbers are bad, but we can’t celebrate everything. I can breathe now…” and she was like “remember mom, celebrate the little things.”

Simi commented that she has learned to listen to her children. She also has a 10-year-old son, who shares a close-knit relationship with his sister.

“Because we didn’t want her to write the exam, but she insisted. We wanted her to stay back in Standard Four and she was like ‘no mommy, I’m going to write this exam’. And as the time got closer, she wasn’t walking for about nine months. She would use a wheelchair in the hospital, but we would lift her, because we told her we are not going to buy a wheelchair for her, you will walk again. And then as the time got closer, she said ‘mommy, I will walk into that room, I promise you’, and just about a month ago, Sidara started walking.”

Pain, Simi mentioned, is part of Sidara’s daily life.

Despite this, Sidara remains resilient. “Even when she’s in pain she’ll still say ‘mommy, let me do this…I’ve never seen her lay down and cry in all these 11 months, never. Even if she’s in pain it’s very hard to tell, unless she tells me, then it’s serious.”

Sidara now takes her medication, which is administered orally, at home. Their daily commute from Princes Town to Mt Hope and the long hospital stays have decreased as she is now in “maintenance”. Sidara is now only required to undergo routine lumbar puncture procedure, a procedure which checks cancer cells or for infection in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

“Sidara is our strength. We draw from her as much as she draws from us. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The way she has handled this…I can see that even adults couldn’t do this. She has been amazing through it all and that’s why I know she will make it,” Simi said.

Sidara’s treatment is two and a half years long and should end September 2023.

“By then she would have spent a year in her new secondary school. What we just pray for, is that everything works out for her. We know life may never be the same because as a parent with a child with cancer, there’s always the fear that it will return. You live in fear but at the same time, faith is bigger, and if you live in faith, and not fear, everything will be okay….Whatever God has intended for her, we accept. We have surrendered to God’s will.”

Sidara was hospitalised March 26 with, for the third time, pancreatitis and an elevated liver function. As such, she will not be writing her exam on Thursday, March 31. The Akalloos have applied for the makeup exam on April 20.