“Makoa,” a Hawaiian name, means “courageous,” “fearless,” a warrior.
Little did Angela and Kapono Saffery know how apt the name would be.
Makoa Saffery, 8, is out to beat cancer. In treatment at Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma since February, Makoa is strong, upbeat and determined, despite the grueling chemotherapy regimen, according to hospital staff.
“I can say that Makoa is really a trouper. He’s a tough kid,” said Kristen Bishop, a certified child life specialist supporting Makoa and his family during treatment.
Makoa’s classmates at Gordon Elementary School in Kingston have a daily reminder of their friend, despite his prolonged absence. The hospital has provided a large stuffed monkey to keep Makoa’s seat warm until he can return to school. The kids write letters and put them in Monkey’s backpack to keep Makoa up on all the news from Ms. Jackson’s classroom.
“Dear Makoa … ,” Kimora Fejeran wrote. “At school, Monkey has been silly and mostly good. … In music, we got to watch videos.”
“We have been learning about mealworms a lot, and they’re really, really gross,” said Tali Tippie. “We’ve had a lot of escapees. … Two fell on Ava’s desk. Ms. Jackson had to pick them up really gently and put them back onto the plate.”
The “Monkey in My Chair” is one of many support services the hospital offers to seriously ill patients and their families.
“One thing we recognize with kids who have any serious illness, we recognize their life looks very different than it did prior to their diagnosis,” Bishop said. “We know having a cancer diagnosis can be very isolating because kids are not in school for a period of time.”
Making the connection through Monkey helps Makoa feel like part of the class even when he’s not there.
“I thought it was the cutest thing,” said his mom Angela, Saffery. “He thought it was funny. He said, ‘Is this me?' I said, ‘Yeah, you can be a monkey.’ ”
When the first batch of letters came, “he sat and read every single one of them,” his mom said. And when he was too tired to go on, he had his mother read the rest.
Monkey also has been good for Makoa’s classmates.
“For kids in the classroom, there’s a certain void,” Bishop said. “It’s a way for them to recognize Makoa is still around. It gives them the opportunity to think about him and communicate with him. So in some ways, it provides the same normalization for them as well.”
“Makoa is a fighter, and he’s a go-getter,” said his teacher, Alice Jackson. “And we’re really missing him here in the classroom.”
Makoa began having flu-like symptoms in January.
“He just wasn’t himself. He’s always so full of energy,” Angela Saffery said.
The day he had to sit down on the steps of the ferry to rest, his family knew this wasn’t an ordinary childhood illness. On Feb. 24 – two days before his birthday – they learned he had lymphoma. Treatment started almost immediately.
While the doctors and nurses tended to his physical care, Bishop was by Makoa’s side, helping him understand the daunting medical words and what to expect from procedures. Mary Bridge has an extensive support system for young patients and their families, including the work of child life specialists, a playroom where they can meet other patients and the Bridge Program of support groups for patients, siblings and parents.
“Monkey in My Chair” is an optional program for families. Not unique to Mary Bridge, it’s used widely in other pediatric hospitals.
Makoa also has Beads of Courage – one for every poke, prod and procedure. His string of beads is getting longer by the day, and the chemotherapy is taking its toll. The past week was particularly difficult, his mom said. But his spirit is staying strong.
“Fighting cancer is easy. I got this!” Makoa recently said, according to his mom.
Angela Saffery posts regular Facebook updates, often with photos of Makoa flashing the Hawaiian “hang loose” sign whether he’s receiving an infusion of the powerful drugs to wipe out the cancer cells, showing off the haircut he got when his hair started falling out, or visiting with Rhubarb, the Tacoma Rainiers mascot, who stopped by the hospital recently.
“He’s just got such great energy through this entire ordeal he’s been going through,” Angela Saffery said. “He’s been so strong. I think that’s why my husband and I are staying so strong.”
On the weeks Makoa has treatments, Angela and Kapono Saffery tag team being with him at the hospital while continuing to work – dad Kapono at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor, mom Angela for U.S. Bank.
The couple has two other children, Lilah, 3, and Kainoa, 17.
Lilah has grown close to her brother and is his new best buddy, now that Makoa can’t get out much, even between treatments when he’s not at the hospital.
“They’ve definitely gotten closer, especially because he’s home all the time,” Angela said.
Kainoa, a senior at Kingston High School, has stayed focused on graduation and planning for college, all the while being there for Makoa. “Kai’s been such a great big brother through all of this,” his mom said.
Bishop praised the Safferys’ resilience.
“His parents are so involved and so appreciative of everything,” Bishop said. “They’re really a joy and pleasure to work with. They are fantastic with Makoa and give him as much choice as they can. They are playful with him, encouraging with him.”
The children in Ms. Jackson’s class have empathy for Makoa with all he’s going through.
“Dear Makoa,” Davanie Lissy said in a message to Makoa. “I think it really is difficult for you to be in the hospital for a lot of days. We all miss you, and we wish you could go back, but we don’t want you to come back right away because you’re sick.”
Friends in Kingston and beyond have rallied around the family, holding fundraisers and sending gifts.
Parent and classroom volunteer Amy Reber, a textile designer, created a quilt for Makoa out of his classmates’ drawings. Her friend Julia Phillips of Eastern Washington sewed the quilt. A print of the cheerful fabric design was auctioned off at a fundraiser at the Kingston Ale House.
“We’re so grateful just to the entire community. There’s so many people and places that have done so much for us,” Angela Saffery said. “It’s amazing all the support we’ve gotten. We love Kitsap County.”