Get to Know Laura
In 2015, an 18 year old Burlingtonian, Laura Hiller, relapsed with cancer for the first time in 5 years. This relapse with acute myeloid leukaemia shed light on major issues within the healthcare system. This documentary share’s Laura’s story through the words of her family. Even when Laura had a donor for a desperately needed bone marrow transplant, she could not receive the help she needed due to lack of resources. It was soon discovered that this was a nation-wide crises- people with confirmed donor’s were not getting the treatment they needed to stay alive. When the Hiller family realized this, it became Laura’s goal to change this issue in any way she could. While she was sick she became a very outspoken advocate of the issue, trying to bring as much awareness to it as possible. When she eventually became too ill, she begged her family and friends to ensure she not die in vain. This idea matters to me, because Laura was a close friend of mine, and we started this documentary together before she became too ill. But above that, this is a story that deserves to be shared of an absolutely amazing young woman who was brave enough to fight for people without voices to ensure what happened to her, never happens again.
On May 24th, 2015, Laura Hillier told her mother, Frances, one of the worst things a mother can ever hear: “Mom, I feel the way I did when I had my cancer”. Laura had been cancer free for exactly 5 years to the day. It only took a few days for doctors to confirm the Hiller’s worst fear. Laura’s bone marrow biopsy revealed that she had 26% cancerous cells in her body. As this was Laura’s second battle with cancer, chemotherapy was not enough to kill the Acute Myeloid Leukemia growing in her body. This time she would require a bone marrow transplant that requires a perfect donor, and she had to achieve remission from a round of chemotherapy. Surprisingly, Laura was matched with 4 perfect donors (an unheard of success), and was ready for her stem cell transplant. The Hillier’s were overjoyed, until Laura’s doctor informed Frances that her daughter would need another round of chemotherapy...maybe more. Frances was confused asked why her daughter would have to endure more unnecessary rounds of harmful treatment, and the doctor’s response was “There is no medical reason for more chemotherapy. She is number 34 on a waitlist for a bed and a room where this transplant can take place.”
Laura’s stem cell transplant is not an easy procedure, with little doctors trained to perform it, and very little beds available in Canada that can house patients undergoing this treatment. The room that Laura requires is approximately a $150,000 room, that must have a “positive” air supply, and ensure absolutely no contaminants while she is recovering from her treatment. Most patients spend 4 months in one of these rooms. There were 4 beds at Juravinski Hospital where Laura was being treated, and she was number 34 on the list.
Frances refused to accept the fact that her daughter would have to undergo countless rounds of chemotherapy in order to stay in remission, in order to perform the transplant. At this point Laura was terminally ill, and the cancer had the strength to kill her at any point in time. Frances tried to take her to Sick Kids Hospital, where they had available beds, and the means to perform this transplant. However, Laura had turned 18 a month previous, and the hospital refused to take her in.
This is when Frances did her research. She discovered that Cancer Care Ontario is responsible for delegating the money donated for cancer research and development, and for years, they had been ignoring doctor's pleas to give more money to the stem cell transplant team, so that more patients could be treated in less time.
On July 7th, 2015, Frances Hillier sent a letter to Cancer Care Ontario, the Ministry of Health Canada, Kathleen Wynne (Premier of Ontario), Eleanor McMahon (MPP Burlington), and one reporter from a local Burlington newspaper. In the letter, Frances exposed the problem, not just in Juravinski Hospital, but that all across Canada, terminally ill patients are kept on waiting lists because Cancer Care Ontario is not giving enough resources to the cause. As soon as the media caught wind of this, the Hillier’s were asked by every news source, and every newspaper to share their story, and they did.
The message was out, but Michael Sherar, President of Cancer Care Ontario, refused to acknowledge that there was a problem, and that there had been a slight influx of patients very recently, but they were working to resolve the issue.
3 weeks later, Frances has finally managed to get Laura into Sick Kids Hospital to perform the stem cell transplant. Laura had undergone two rounds of chemotherapy, and she and her donor were ready for the procedure. A few days before the surgery was a go, her donor dropped out for unknown reasons, and Laura relapsed while waiting for her next donor.
This time, the chemotherapy that would keep Laura’s cancer at bay had stopped working, making her immune, and unable to continue treatment. The doctors suggested Salvage chemotherapy, which was much more intense and damaging than the induction chemo, but their only other option. The Salvage chemo had the opposite effect, and after performing the biopsy to check for cancerous cells, they found that had Laura had 80% cancer in her bone marrow.
From this point on, Laura began to suffer from other medical conditions due to the chemotherapy that was so damaging to her body. Disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) gave Laura the inability to form blood clots, and she began to bleed for numerous places in her body, which nurses said would eventually lead to death. The solution to DIC only caused more problems for Laura, as she reacted poorly to the medication provided, and had to be intubated. This happened twice, and as doctors fought to save Laura, she only became weaker.
Laura’s body was too weak to undergo anymore chemotherapy, and she couldn’t achieve remission. City of Hope Hospital in Los Angeles caught wind of her story through the media, and offered to try an experimental procedure on her in the hopes that she could recover. The night before she was scheduled to fly to L.A., her heart began to give out. It was only a matter of days before Laura was taken to the ICU, and her heart began to fail. The nurses that fell in love with Laura lined up to give her CPR until Frances realized that her daughter would never recover. Frances made a promise to Laura that she would hold her in her arms while she died, and so she did. On January 20th 2016, Laura Hillier passed away in the arms of her mother and sister, just as they had said “Amen” at the end of their prayer.
In the end, Laura had received 5 rounds of chemotherapy, she was intubated twice, and suffered from DIC, in the span of 7 months. If the resources had been delegated to Laura’s illness in 2007 when the problem had been recognized, Laura would still be here with us today.
Frances continued her daughter’s legacy, and has made major improvements in the healthcare system. These are some of the changes she has made in honor of Laura:
Sick kids hospital will now take patients 18-21 into their care
Millions of dollars has been donated to the addition of more rooms to perform Stem Cell Transplants
More physicians trained in Stem Cell Transplants
Patients are now able to fly to the U.S. and have their treatment paid for by Canada, if there is no opportunity for them to be treated here.
...And the list is still growing. Frances is now on the board of executives that makes decisions with the Minister of Health, Cancer Care Ontario, and all of the surrounding Hospitals in Canada.
Although she lost her battle with cancer, her wish has not been forgotten. Her family, and the people that support her have not, and will not stop until the proper funds are provided so that no one, or their families have to go through what Laura did.