Olivia Johnstone McCloud was Dux of Year 8 when she was at Bendigo South East. It was a wonderful achievement and life felt right on track.

However, early in Year 9 Olivia had a routine blood test that turned her life upside down.

It showed her blood cells were seriously abnormal and further tests at the Royal Children’s Hospital (RCH) revealed an incredibly rare and life-threatening blood cancer.

Olivia says she understood the theory of what was going on, but because she felt well she couldn’t believe she could be out playing footy one weekend and suddenly have it totally banned.

“I couldn’t even do PE because my blood didn’t have the capacity to clot properly—so even a minor injury could be devastating.”

“No-one knows why I got this. In my case the genetic testing showed no predisposition or anything like that.”

The next two years were dominated by hospital admissions and treatments.

In a sudden and disorientating upheaval, Olivia was uprooted from everything familiar. Her dad and step-mum used an apartment near RCH during her treatments.

“None of my friends could really understand what I was going through, though one friend was a particularly solid support.”

The treatment made Olivia feel very unwell. Her plan to dive into all those books she wanted to read—she’s been known to read 100 books a year—came to nothing as the exhaustion and discomfort made the slightest effort impossible.

However, she did manage to read one of her older brother’s Year 12 texts with him.

Her beautiful long dark hair began to fall out as her treatment progressed and she reluctantly decided to get her dad to shave it off.

“He’d actually had the clippers at the apartment in case I made this decision,” she remembers, “but it was very emotional for me. I loved my hair.”

In an act of generosity, Olivia donated the 40cm swatch of gorgeous dark hair to a wigmaker.

“I remember being very affected by the little kids on the ward,” she says. “They’d never even had a chance to fully grow their hair before it  fell out because of the drugs used to save their lives.”

Illnesses, such as the one Olivia has had, impact the entire family and she and her two brothers missed each other terribly—especially during a three-month period when her immune system was so fragile she could have no contact with them.

“I had never known life without my older brother, and my little brother gave up his entire Year 6 camp just to come and say hello to me through a window for a few minutes.”

In the end it was decided Olivia needed a bone marrow transplant and members of her family were tested as the oncology team looked for a suitable match.

It turned out her older brother was a perfect match. It was after the bone-marrow donation from him that Olivia finally defeated her cancer and went into remission.

Despite this outstanding result, her body had a big journey ahead rebuilding her immune system.

During this time Olivia recalls her dad pushing her wheelchair all over the parklands surrounding the hospital. Simple things, such as having a pizza in Lygon Street, became precious moments of normality.

One day they waited until there was almost no-one in the iconic Readings Book Store in Carlton and wheeled Olivia in so she could choose any book she wanted.

“I also remember the first time I was allowed to be with my whole family again. I was still really sick but it felt so good to all be together again—and my brothers were so excited!

“Then at Christmas I was given permission to have overnight leave from the hospital and we were all together at the apartment.”

Reflecting on serious life challenges, Olivia says her advice to others is to “keep fighting—don’t give up even when you really feel like it. You don’t have to stay positive—you just have to keep going.”

Olivia now feels she can take on anything, and when she got Covid four months after she came home she thought, ‘this will be a piece of cake after the treatment I’ve had’.

Before she became unwell, Olivia would have named Dux of Year 8 as a pivotal proud moment of her life.

Not only grateful to have survived, Olivia is proud she has not let the experience stop her from getting on with life. In fact, since coming to BSSC, new friends can’t believe that only a couple of years ago she was so sick.

“The RCH has all this school support for kids who are missing classes, and my RCH teacher advised me not to take on a full load in Year 10 as I coped with my illness and treatment.

“But I knew I wanted to do six subjects in Year 11 and saw Year 10 as important preparation for that—so I did a full load and was rapt to do well in my Year 10 exams.”

Olivia also acknowledges her Grade 3 teacher, Amy Cunniffe, who refused to let Olivia coast along and extended her young student to what she recognised Olivia was capable of.

“What I think made her such a great teacher was how she cared for each of us and built such positive relationships. She uses different teaching methods to find what worked best for different students.”

Now in Year 12, Olivia is enjoying her time at BSSC which she describes as a very ‘free’ place.

“You’re not weighed down by the school dictating subjects—and being allowed to leave the grounds teaches you to take responsibility.

“BSSC sets you up brilliantly for uni and the wider world.”

If Olivia could go back—knowing what was coming—and give her 12-year-old self some advice, she would say this:

“Sometimes you’ve got to fight the storm. Sometimes it does need to get worse before it gets better. Always remember that having people around you who love you is the most important thing.”

It’s her family for which Olivia is most grateful.

“Dad has this great saying; ‘sometimes you need help to eat an elephant’. Everyone in my family had a part to play as we ‘ate’ the ‘elephant’ of my illness and treatment.”

Olivia—and Riley her brother who was her bone marrow donor—have both changed their future plans as a result of this profound experience.

Riley is not so interested in being a sports physio and wants to do all he can for people facing serious health challenges.

In contrast Olivia says, “I don’t want to work in a hospital setting or deal directly with people who are having experiences like mine. I’m planning to apply for Biomedicine with a view to becoming a researcher.

“I think there has to be a better way of treating these diseases and I want to be part of that.”