When little Abbie Bickley was in hospital for cancer treatment for the second time last year, she saw another little girl arrive on the ward, bewildered and frightened.
Abbie immediately left her own bed, went up to the girl and held her hand.
It was a typical display of compassion from the caring youngster, who despite her own health battles, always puts others first.
Dad Paul says: “What has impressed us most with Abbie is that she has taken it all in her stride and always thinks of others.
“Her caring nature for other children having treatment has shone through. Whenever a child is alone on the ward, Abbie will go over and watch over them. And she is always painting pictures or making bracelets to give away and cheer up other poorly children.”
Abbie’s infectious enthusiasm, and her determination to put a smile on the faces of everyone around her, won the hearts of the Pride of Birmingham judges, who chose her to win a Child of Courage award.
The Birmingham Live Pride of Birmingham Awards, in partnership with TSB, honour the city’s unsung heroes of all ages.
Abbie, 11, has already beaten cancer twice. She was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in January 2018, when she was eight. After six months of intensive chemotherapy at Birmingham Children’s Hospital, the cancer went into remission.
Last May, doctors told Abbie’s parents the cancer had returned, but following further treatment, Abbie was once again declared in remission.
Her battle is not over however. Last November a CT scan showed lesions and ulcers on her liver which doctors believe was due to the intensive chemotherapy. Abbie had been due to have more chemotherapy to stop the leukaemia returning for a third time, but the treatment is on hold until the lesions have disappeared.
Through it all, Abbie, who was born with Down syndrome, has never stopped smiling, and finding new ways to inspire the people around her.
Paul, 40, has been documenting his daughter’s fight and spreading awareness of childhood cancer in a Facebook group called Abbie’s Journey. The school caretaker is determined to do all he can for his daughter, along with mum Jackie, 55, a shop manager, and Abbie’s ten older siblings.
Abbie’s story has touched her whole community in Great Barr, thanks in part to the beautiful painted stones she hides for other children to find.
People who find a stone are encouraged to share the moment on Abbie’s Facebook page and then re-hide the stone for someone else to find.
Paul explains: “After Abbie’s first diagnosis we started leaving the stones for people to find. It was something to do and quite therapeutic.
“We realised it was a way of spreading the word about Abbie, children’s cancer and Down Syndrome. The idea snowballed to something beyond our expectations and has put so many smiles on people’s faces.
“Over the last three years Abbie has hidden at least a thousand stones now and loves checking Facebook to see where they have been found. People have actually gone on to find them, and then take them and re-hide them as far away as Germany, Holland and even Japan.”
Paul adds: “It has been a tough last couple of years. We thought Abbie had beaten leukaemia two years ago, so to be told it had returned was a devastating blow. Now we are once again urgently awaiting another scan to see if her liver is clear so she can start the maintenance chemotherapy. It will mean going into hospital again but we will do whatever it takes.”
Lockdown was particularly challenging for the family as they attempted to balance home life and work with Abbie’s treatment. None of her siblings could visit Abbie in hospital, and Paul and Jackie were forced to swap places outside the ward, unable to visit at the same time.
Paul adds: “It’s been really tough as only one of us can be with her in the hospital because of Covid and her siblings desperately miss her when she is in hospital.
“Luckily work has been really supportive, especially when Abbie relapsed, allowing me time off when I needed it. Jackie’s work has been supportive too, she was furloughed but then she had to go back to work. We had to fight for Abbie’s sister to stay with her on the ward as it was clear she could not be left alone. The nurses had enough to get on with.”
Although Abbie is in remission she still has regular hospital visits for scans and bone marrow tests.
“Waiting for the results is a nerve-wracking process wondering if something is going to show up,” says Paul. “Even though Abbie is in remission, there is always the fear that the cancer might come back for a third time.
“Whenever she gets a cold you wonder if it’s a sign that she is fighting the disease again. And every time she has the chemo, it slightly damages her, it affects her heart so she is on weak beta-blockers on a daily basis. All we can do is take every day as it comes.”
Yet despite the restrictions and hospital visits Abbie is determined to live life to the full. She loves to dance and go fishing with her dad. And she is adored by her siblings, the oldest of whom is 34, and from mum Jackie’s previous relationship.
“She has got them all wrapped around her finger,” Paul jokes.
Abbie was delighted to go back to school in February. “She was so happy to get back on the bus with her friends. She just loves to be part of the action.”
Paul is beyond proud that his daughter has won a Pride of Birmingham award: “For people to recognise Abbie makes it all worthwhile. We are so proud of Abs, but I don’t think she’ll ever realise how special she is and how blessed we feel to have her in our lives.
“From the start, even when we found out she had Down syndrome, it never crossed our minds to abort the pregnancy. We always thought we would treat her like any other child. Since she was born she has been surrounded by love and affection. That has rubbed off on her and it shows.
“It might be a strange thing to say, but we feel like one of the lucky ones. There are six or seven families who we have met, and their children are no longer here.”
The Birmingham Live Pride of Birmingham Awards, in partnership with TSB, will premiere on YouTube on Thursday, May 6 at 7pm.
You can also watch the show on FacebookLive across Pride of Britain and BirminghamLive.