Courage, charisma, strength of character, sincerity – whatever it is that makes some people inspirational and very special, Chris Corlett had it.
His fortitude and willingness to share even the darkest moments of his short life, awakened a flood of public support, which resulted in the birth of the Friends of the South African Bone Marrow Registry Foundation – now known as The Sunflower Fund, whose main purpose is to build up a database of 400,000 donors.
It was Chris Corlett’s wish that the Registry develop and grow, so that future leukaemia sufferers may have the opportunity to live a healthy life and today, The Sunflower Fund continues to ensure that the number of prospective stem cell donors increases each year – giving hope to patients awaiting that lifesaving match.
He was very special and extremely brave and has taught us all lessons and we all miss him so much.
Chris was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia in August 1997 while he was in Grade 9 at Westerford High School in Cape Town. He underwent six months of gruelling chemotherapy and full body radiation. This was the beginning of a three-year nightmare. In February 1998 he had his first stem cell transplant. This was an autologous transplant with a harvest from his own blood as there were no compatible family donors and they were not doing unrelated transplants at that stage. By July 1998, Chris was back at school. He had managed to pass Grade 9 and move on to Grade 10 and a healthy future. During this time he even travelled to Durban to the Gunston 500 surfing championships with Reach for a Dream.
He began his Grade 11 year at Westerford, full of hope with a lot of plans for the future; art and graphic design always being the most important.
The bubble burst in March 1999 when he suffered a relapse. The leukaemia was back with a vengeance and Chris had to decide whether he wanted to give up or fight back and try again. The worst thing was that Chris had been through hell and now he knew exactly what to expect if he decided to do it again. As only Chris could do, he decided to tackle it head on and began another six months of tortuous treatment. This time Chris had to have an unrelated matched donor transplant. This meant we had to find a match for him and we only had six months to do this. This was when we realised the terrible state that the South African Bone Marrow Registry was in.
Eventually, after much publicity, doing endless blood clinics and searching the international databases, a donor was found in KwaZulu Natal and Chris underwent his second stem cell transplant in September 1999. It was during this time in isolation that he painted his Sunflowers of Hope, which is hanging in the Sunflower Ward at Constantiaberg today in memory of Chris. The support Chris had from his friends at Westerford was amazing. They truly kept him motivated and gave him the will to live. This was also the time he met his girlfriend, Lisa, who supported him through the worst time of his life. She meant so much to Chris and I am so grateful for what she was able to do for him.
This time we all really felt that it would work. He had found a donor and things were looking good. This was about the time that Chris read about a wonderful new school opening in Tokai called Reddam House.
He convinced me that he really needed to move to a new school at this point as he would have to repeat Grade 11 due to all the work he had missed and all his friends would be moving on to their final matric year. This would have been very difficult for Chris and I agreed that the move would be a good idea. He wrote and applied for a scholarship, which was given to him based on his artistic talent in both art and graphic design. I am sure his incredible strength of character also had something to do with being accepted.
The move to Reddam was fantastic for him. He began his second Grade 11 year in January 2000 with new energy, new friends and great future prospects. I also decided to apply for the position of personal assistant at Reddam and moved Tarryn and Jason as well. The future was really looking bright for all of us. For the first time in three years it felt as though it was really all behind us and we could start re-building our lives and living again.
But this was not to be, and in April 2000 Chris suffered his second relapse and the whole process began again. Chris was given an unenviable choice – another transplant or three weeks to live! Again it was Chris’s decision to carry on and we all supported this 100%. He said: “I still have so much I want to do and three weeks is just not long enough“.
This time we had to again search for a donor and Chris was put into immediate isolation in the Constantiaberg Bone Marrow Unit. The chemotherapy started again and Chris really battled. He developed complications such as mucor, which was also life threatening in his condition. I cannot describe the pain of watching someone you love so dearly suffer so much. Unless you’ve been there, you have absolutely no idea of the suffering endured from high dose chemotherapy and all the other antibiotics, anti-fungal drugs, steroids, trial drugs, and so on.
By July 2000, Christopher needed to get home and his doctor allowed me to nurse him at home full time. He wanted me to try and strengthen him mentally as his morale was low and he needed to prepare for the transplant, which was now urgent. I ran a complete hospital at home, doing all the drips, bloods, platelets, and dressings on a daily basis. I travelled back and forth to the hospital with blood samples to get lab reports and keep his doctor updated. Those were the most amazing three weeks. Chris was so happy and doing so well. He was able to see his sister, Tarryn and his baby brother, Jason, who were not allowed into the isolation ward at the hospital. The family was together again and everyone was happy and Chris was thriving. Sometimes I just wish I could have kept him there forever and not gone back to hospital, but this was not possible. Chris was feeling so strong and positive and looking forward to a future and going to the Red and Yellow school to study graphic design and advertising.
They were the school behind the advert, which was on television to raise money for the Bone Marrow Registry. The students put this together after seeing Chris on Carte Blanche.
We found a donor in Norway and the transplant was brought forward to 8 August, as Chris was in remission.
Very traumatic weeks followed as Chris fought bravely to recover. His kidneys failed and he was put onto dialysis. At the beginning of September, Chris was moved into ICU and we were told that he probably was not going to make it. This was the most devastating news and the most traumatic time. We just loved Chris as much as we could and spent as much time with him as possible. The day before he died, his blood count lifted for the first time and the transplant was, in fact, a success. Unfortunately his body had just had enough. I was with Chris when he very suddenly slipped away. I was able to hold him and talk to him and tell him I loved him. His whole family was there and I will never forget that day.
Chris had amazing courage and he touched a lot of people all over South Africa. We all miss him terribly but I truly know he is in a better place, free of pain and suffering and very busy creating new Sunflowers of Hope.
The original of this painting was completed by 17 year old Chris Corlett in 1999, whilst being treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. Copies of which now hang in transplant units around South Africa:
A copy has been taken to New Zealand and hangs in the Michael Torbeti Bone Marrow Unit in Auckland. This was taken over by Jennifer Kriste from Durban (her son-in-law has had a successful transplant there).
Another copy has gone to Australia and was presented to the BMTU at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne by Mr Shap, whose grandson had a successful transplant there.