Meet Aaron, the inspiration behind Spread a Smile

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Ten years ago Spread a Smile was founded by our very special Co-Founders, Josephine Segal and Vanessa Crocker. Their inspiration for starting the charity came from Aaron, Josephine’s nephew who at the time was in hospital at Great Ormond Street Hospital receiving treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Aaron with Spread a Smile Chief Executive Lucy Jackson, Vanessa Crocker and Josephine Segal

Aaron with Spread a Smile Chief Executive Lucy Jackson, Vanessa Crocker and Josephine Segal

In April 2023 Spread a Smile held a Gala Dinner to welcome supporters, friends and colleagues for a celebration of the last ten years. We were delighted to welcome Aaron who took to the stage to share his journey and how, through her devotion to her nephew, Josephine joined forces with Vanessa to found Spread a Smile.

Below is Aaron’s speech from the night, sharing his journey and how it became the inspiration for everything Spread a Smile stands for today.

“Hello everyone and good evening. My name is Aaron and I’d like to tell you a little bit about my story. For context, I am Josephine’s nephew, and to me she is my Aunty Jojo, although I’ve been given strict instructions to not call her that because apparently, it’s ‘unprofessional’. But to me, anything else other than Aunty Jojo just doesn’t sound right. Now that we’ve got that out the way, I’ve only been given three minutes so I’ll get right to it.

“Ten and half years ago, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and spent half a year in Lion Ward at Great Ormond Street Hospital. For 6 days a week, my parents, Caroline and Simon, stayed overnight to look after me. They selflessly rose to the challenge of caring and supporting me when I needed it the most, while maintaining a sense of normality at home. My brothers, Joshua and Oliver would frequently visit me frequently after school, vicariously enduring my experiences alongside me, and going through their own hardships from seeing their brother suffer. But my family made sure I never felt alone and for that I’m eternally grateful. To give my family a break for one night a week, every Monday, my Aunty Jojo would stay overnight in my hospital room.

“Around 2 months into my treatment, during a particularly aggressive round of chemotherapy, the side effects of the drugs I was administered started to take their toll on my body. My strength was deteriorating to the point that I could hardly get out of bed, my appetite diminished so I had barely any energy. As a result, the few sources of entertainment I had available to me in my hospital room weren’t enough to provide a distraction from my illness. The strings of my guitar, which was my last line of defence, providing a release in the form of creative expression, became too tough to pluck, and I was at my wits end. One Monday night, the weight of it all became too much for my frail body and jaded spirit to handle. At the time, I thought that the cause of the breakdown that ensued was that I so desperately wanted to be anywhere else in the world other than that hospital room. But retrospectively, that moment represented a fundamental change in how I viewed myself: I wasn’t a child anymore, being a patient was at the forefront of my identity.

“Each day spent bedbound became a reminder of everything I couldn’t do that a healthy child does. Playing football, going to school and socialising all seemed unreachable to me. Being immunocompromised for extended periods during my treatment limited visitation to only close family members. My friends who eventually were able to visit, who I am incredibly grateful for, unfortunately served as reminders of the life I was missing out on when they left to go home, and I remained where I was.

“Until my Aunty Jojo brought in a magician and provided the escapism I so desperately needed. The bewildered amazement I felt as the coin he had placed on the back of my hand had somehow appeared underneath my palm, as if it had fallen straight through my hand, was a sensation I remember so vividly. And in that brief moment, I had forgotten I was a patient. I had asked if the magician was able to visit the girl in the room adjacent to mine, but unfortunately hospital regulations wouldn’t allow it. It was at that moment that my aunt saw an opportunity to help make the time children spend in hospital wards more tolerable, and as they say, the rest is history.

“Providing that transforming experience is really the essence of Spread a Smile: even if only for a fleeting minute, lifting the weight of being a patient with a life-threatening illness off the child’s shoulders, and allowing them to experience childhood again. During my time volunteering at Spread a Smile I saw first-hand the impact that their amazing work has not only on the patients, but their siblings and
parents too.

“It is with great pleasure that I would like to introduce to you Eleanor Tyrell, who was the head nurse and ward sister of Lion Ward during my stay at Great Ormond Street. 10 years on and I realised I never properly thanked you for putting up with my antics when I was a patient, for that I can only apologise. And with that said, thank you very much for listening everyone and I hope you enjoy your evening.”

Thank you so much to Aaron for sharing his journey with us. To find out more about the work of Spread a Smile and how you can get involved, please click here.