Friday, May 24, 2024

‘He was the coolest kid’: Remembering Griffin Bell ahead of CN Cycle for CHEO

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Photographers will tell you that one of the best times to capture incredible images is just after sunrise or right before sunset. That time is known as the golden hour. It’s the light that starts each day, offering hope and wonder about the day ahead.


Griffin Bell exemplified that hope and light in a way that few others ever will.


“He was so cool… the coolest kid you could ever meet,” says his mom, Tamy Bell.


Griff started out his life as a fighter. Born almost three months premature, he spent eight weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.


“When you’re potentially going to have a child that early, they read you all of the statistics and you’re overwhelmed by everything you’re being told,” recalls Tamy. “And he just beat them all. He came out happy, he was healthy.”


Because he was born so premature, Griff had some issues with his kidneys and underwent scans at CHEO every few months. It was during one of those routine ultrasounds in October of 2018 that doctors found something unexpected.


“(The ultrasound technician) left and in walked three women and they said to me ‘We have reason to believe your son has neuroblastoma'”, says Tamy.


Griff was only 16 months old. Tamy and her husband Evan’s initial reaction was that the doctors were wrong.


“He was happily playing on the stroller. There’s nothing wrong with him. I think, when you hear the word cancer, you think of people and children being ill, and there was nothing wrong with him,” Tamy says. “We hung on to hope, from that moment right until the very end because if we didn’t, who knows where we’d be.”


Griff was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of childhood cancer that develops from immature nerve cells. Five rounds of radiation and a surgery later, Griff entered remission for two years. The COVID-19 pandemic hit shortly after, but it didn’t stop the Bells.


“We had to be creative,” says Evan. “There was a bouncy castle in the living room for a month. The toboggan days, outdoor rink days. Even the really early days, just a lot of fun, a lot of smiles, a lot of laughs and a lot of love.”


Unfortunately, Griff relapsed multiple times in the years that followed. Through all the trips to CHEO and SickKids Hospital in Toronto for radiation, chemotherapy and clinical trials, Griff showed strength beyond his years.


“He was living a normal kid’s life that was interrupted by hospital visits,” remembers Evan.


Tamy tells the story about how he started junior kindergarten the year that he first relapsed. Griff would go to radiation first thing in the morning, but then be asked to be dropped off at school because he wanted to be there.


He was also a huge hockey fan. He cheered on the Ottawa Senators and loved defenceman Thomas Chabot, wearing his #72 for Timbits hockey at Barbara Ann Scott and Delude arenas.


“If he got out of the hospital on Friday after five days in, it was up at 7 or 8 a.m. and on the ice with his buddies,” says Evan.


When Griff relapsed for the third time in April 2023, things were different. Up to that point, the cancer had returned in his abdomen, but scans showed that it had now spread to his leg and his orbital bone in his head. More treatment followed, but by late in the year, Griff was running out of options.


“Just prior to Christmas, we had some really hard conversations in Toronto. We still had so much hope but they were saying they weren’t sure what else they could do,” says Tamy.


By February, the cancer had spread to his liver and Tamy and Evan had to have the difficult discussions with staff at Roger Nielson Children’s Hospice about what end-of-life care would look like. Griff responded well enough to radiation that the family was able to take a whirlwind trip to Florida and go to Disney World.


“We did all four parks in two-and-a-half days, Disney World twice, mini putt and had a blood transfusion,” his parents say. “The last park we went to was Epcot, his favourite ride was there.”


It was March break when the family returned home. On the Sunday that it was ending, Griff had to go back to the Emergency Department at CHEO.


“There was no indication to either of us that when we went to the hospital that day that we wouldn’t be walking back out,” says an emotional Tamy.


“He was running out of gas, he was tired, but he didn’t complain, didn’t want to weigh anyone down,” recalls Evan, overcome by emotion.


The next morning, on March 18, Griff took his final breath, a few months shy of his seventh birthday.


“Even though they were the hardest moments of my life, if I could go back to them in a moment, I would. Just to be able to touch him again,” says Tamy.


The family then organized a “celebration of light” in Griff’s honour. Hundreds of people packed into the Horticulture Building at Lansdowne in April, to celebrate the impact that little guy had on so many people in the community.


Griff’s Gang


That impact continues this weekend, when Griff’s Gang will walk in the CN Cycle for CHEO. Over the years, Tamy estimates the team has raised more than $600,000 for childhood cancer research and awareness. This year, the team has collected over $300,000 alone.


“They’re doing it to show us support and other families support and other children support, but I really don’t think they understand the impact that it has on us,” says Tamy.


“We feel the love for Griff and for our family and all of the other families that are impacted, but it’s so much more than that.” 


Donations to Griff’s Gang can be made here. 


Tamy has also been documenting the family’s cancer journey on social media, offering an honest and raw perspective of everything they’ve been through over the last several years.


“I wanted to show other families… that it doesn’t have to be as bad as it seems it’s going to be,” she says, emphasizing the tone of her stories and posts.


“By sharing our story, it helps me share him because he’s amazing… and it’s almost like therapy. I’m talking to a bunch of strangers, but I’m sharing our experiences and I tried to keep them as positive as I could because… no one needs to see the negative side of cancer. They already know… it’s cancer.”


While Evan has continued to work to support the family, Tamy started a side business making clothing. It’s evolved into simply being the word ‘Golden’ being printed onto sweaters and other items. All of the funds raised from sales are supporting CHEO, and the business has only grown.


“I see people walking by, I see people at the grocery store in them and it’s like… somebody wearing a Senators jersey to a Sens game – they’re supporting their favourite team,” she says.


“I get messages from Toronto, ‘Our transplant doctor is wearing one of your sweatshirts today,’ or Alberta, ‘I just saw someone in the hospital here and they’re wearing one of your sweatshirts today,’ and it’s overwhelming.”


Despite their unspeakable loss, the family continues to find ways to honour Griff and are hopeful that the legacy he leaves behind will continue to be honoured for many years to come.


“It’s a really wonderful feeling to have him occupying space in your heart…and I hope that people can just remember what he was able to give them through his six years.” 

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