Support role making a difference

When Wodonga mum of four, Shana Wallace, found out her son had leukemia, she was told to go home and pack to live in Melbourne for six months.

But thanks to a new role funded by the Albury Wodonga Regional Cancer Centre Trust Fund, five-year-old Chase has been able to receive treatment in Melbourne, while making regular trips home to be with the rest of the family.

Ms Wallace-Pietila said the difference that made was “enormous” for Chase who gets to play with his brothers and sisters, while she catches up on life at home.

“The staff in Melbourne said we were one of the luckiest families to be able to go home as early as we did,” she said.

“And that was only because we do have the support in Albury now that we didn’t have previously.”

The Wallaces are one of about 60 families from across the region who have benefited from a new role at Albury Wodonga Health for a Paediatric Cancer Care Coordinator.

The position, the first of its kind for regional Victoria, was launched following a $180,000 commitment from the Albury SS&A Club, and $150,000 from the Phegan family, to the Albury Wodonga Regional Cancer Centre Trust Fund over three years.

The aim of the role is to coordinate care close to home where possible for young cancer patients and their families.

Paediatric nurse, Joanna Owen, commenced in the role in April 2023 and said it has been “amazing” to help facilitate change that has made such a difference to families whose worlds have come crashing down following a diagnosis.

“Lots of visits to the Royal Children’s Hospital have been avoided and that was definitely a goal of this role, to keep families together,” she said.

“But one of the biggest wins for me is that families and patients love the role.

“They have confidence in coming home, that we’re talking to their specialists in Melbourne and that their child is safe to be back here with their family.”

From the moment a child is diagnosed, Mrs Owen has been able to assist with organising accommodation in Melbourne, meals and the admission process.

She has established a relationship with the oncology team at the Royal Children’s and identified opportunities for patients to receive their care in the local region.

This has included increased chemotherapy services, assisted telehealth, utilising local imaging and pathology services and a mid-cycle review clinic for patients who would not traditionally be able to come home between treatments because of the risk of them becoming significantly unwell.

For Ms Wallace, it has also meant that she has been able to provide care for her other three children, while also helping Chase receive the treatment he needs.

“I’m not a mum of one, I am a mum of four and to be a good mum, you need to be good to all your kids and not just one,” she said.

“Chase isn’t more important than all of my kids, he just has different needs and those needs to be met where it’s functional for our family.”

SS&A chief executive Gerard Darmody said the club was “humble and proud” to play its part in making the journey a little easier for young cancer patients.

“I think most people have had family members who have had to make the trek to Melbourne to get treatment and it’s not a nice thing to have to do,” he said.

“But it really hits home when you hear the stories from Joanna and the direct impact that it is having on local kids and their families.”

Danny Phegan and his wife, Caroline, were also proud to support the role and the difference it is making to young families.

“We’re very grateful for the work that Jo has done, and although it keeps being cited as a three-year commitment, we’ve always hoped that this will be a perpetual pledge from us,” he said.