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Sitara de Gagne’s son Hunter, 6, was just a toddler, when he was diagnosed with leukemia

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Six-year-old Hunter Kemp has two piggy banks: one for himself and one for the doctor who helped save his life.

In 2009, when he was just a toddler, Hunter was diagnosed with leukemia. Since then, he and his family have endured nearly four years of gruelling treatments and heartbreaking setbacks on his long path to recovery. The boy, who started Grade 1 this month in Toronto, officially finished treatment on April 15, the day before his birthday. But his doctor at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, who also conducts medical research, is never far from his mind. Hence the piggy banks.

Hunter knows that medical breakthroughs cost money and that if doctors are going to save the lives of more children like him, they need all the help they can get. So he is perpetually in fundraising mode.

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"He's very committed to research," said his mother, Sitara de Gagne.

The family can't help but wonder if he'll one day don a lab coat and join their ranks. Throughout his treatment, Hunter was insistent on understanding why his body was failing and what the medications, which made him feel so sick at times, were doing. He learned about platelets and spends time drawing DNA and blood cells. He asked his obliging oncologist to show him the lab where new theories are put to the test. And he asked the question for which there is no good answer: Why did so many of his friends and fellow cancer patients have to die?

So it seems fitting that Hunter will be on hand Tuesday as SickKids unveils one of the most ambitious projects in its history: the opening of what is believed to be the world's largest child-health research centre. At about 69,680 square metres and 21 storeys, the Peter Gilgan Centre for Research and Learning will be able to accommodate 2,000 scientists and staff, and features laboratories, learning facilities and even a 250-seat auditorium.

"It's a very significant statement," said Mary Jo Haddad, president and CEO of SickKids.

Haddad said the new research tower highlights the hospital's commitment to uncovering the root cause of diseases and continuing to make new discoveries. It's "critical to the health and prosperity of our children," she said.

The tower was designed to encourage scientists and researchers to connect face-to-face and meet one another, moving away from traditional work spaces that can isolate groups and maintain too many silos. The new centre "opens the door for collisions," said Haddad, creating new opportunities for researchers who might never have met otherwise to work together and collaborate.

The research tower cost approximately $400-million and was financed by the municipal, provincial and federal governments, lead donor Peter Gilgan – who is founder and CEO of Mattamy Homes – long-term borrowing and fundraising campaigns.

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And Hunter has watched it unfold from the beginning. His mother said that while he was at the hospital, Hunter would see the construction of the new tower – which he referred to as his tower – and asked what the research centre was going to be for. She told him it's where all of the scientists would eventually hang out. It's one of the developments that continued to fuel his interest in research and helped him look to the future.

His mother is hopeful too. Throughout her son's ordeal, she and her husband were often frustrated by the challenging treatment regimens and harsh medication that would cause their son to rapidly lose weight, be unable to move and have such horrific constipation that he needed morphine to have a bowel movement. Not to mention the side effects, which can include hearing and vision loss, memory problems and other scary long-term consequences.

"It's absolutely heartbreaking," de Gagne said.

She also highlights the fact that development of new pediatric oncology drugs is slow and that she is anxious for the day when new treatments become available to help more children. She and her son are hopeful the new research centre will set scientists on that path.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More


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