Just before she began chemotherapy treatments last summer, an 11-year-old girl by the name of Tiya Bainbridge met an 18-year-old boy by the name of Owen Brady. The two of them were indelibly linked, and not just because of their mutual love for hockey. During that meeting, Tiya asked for one favor, that Owen skate with her on her backyard rink when she completed her treatment.
So on Jan. 29, two days after Tiya Bainbridge ‘rang the bell’ at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto to commemorate her cancer-free diagnosis, Tiya Bainbridge kept her date with Owen Brady. On a brisk day on a backyard rink in Whitby, Ont., two cancer survivors tied up their skates, picked up their sticks and enjoyed something almost all of their peers take for granted. “It was so exciting,” Tiya said. “It was one of the best days of my life.”
Over the past 2-1/2 years, we’ve been bringing you the story of Owen Brady, a top prospect for the 2019 Ontario League draft whose career was blindsided by a cancerous tumor in his left shin. But the dream lives on for Owen, who is counting on getting back on the ice for good next season when he joins the Pickering Panthers Jr. A team. Tiya reached out to Owen after he Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in August, which came just a month after her 11th birthday. But her teammates on the Whitby Wolves Under-13 ‘BB’ team don’t refer to Tiya as ‘The Bulldog’ for nothing. “They call her that because she’d just run through people,” said Tiya’s mother, Meera Vignarajah. “She’s on the petite side, but that never kept her from going in the corners and skating hard and going after the puck. When she didn’t have a great game, that’s when she’d be the angriest.”
So, like Owen Brady, Tiya Bainbridge met her diagnosis head-on with a sense of purpose and optimism that belied her years. There must be something in the water in Whitby that makes their kids so determined in the face of serious setbacks. Before beginning her treatments, Tiya went for a walk with her mother and shared some profound thoughts. “She said to me, ‘You know, I was trying to hard to grow up and be a teenager and now I realize how fragile life is,’ ” Meera said. “And when she said that, I realized what an impact this was having on her and how quickly she had to grow up to have the strength and resilience she’d need to get through the next few months.”
Strength and resilience would prove not to be a problem. Not only did Tiya keep up with school throughout her treatments, she embarked on an initiative called Tiya’s Purpose, a fundraiser for the hospital where she received her treatments. She originally hoped to raise $10,000 making rainbow loom bracelets and selling them, but hit $18,000 within three days. So Tiya recruited friends and family, including her twin brother, Teagan, to make the bracelets, while father Terry Bainbridge would take the orders and send them out. More than $36,000 later, Tiya’s Purpose is still raising money for Sick Kids and also sells stickers and backpack tags embossed with the words, “Their fight is my fight.” (To donate, click here)
“At the beginning, I couldn’t even process the information, it was hard to take in,” Tiya said. “I wanted other kids who go through cancer treatment, or any other kind of sickness, to have more coping mechanisms and better medical equipment. I just wanted to make their treatment as easy as possible.”
It’s probably a good time to remind everyone that Tiya is 11 years old. And in the sixth grade. All told, Tiya underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and responded so well that radiation wasn’t necessary. During her treatments, she wrote a letter to Mario Lemieux pointing out four things they have in common. They’re both Canadian, they play hockey, they had cancer and they raised money. Lemieux responded by sending her a signed puck. “She now considers Mario Lemieux and Owen Brady her two role models,” Meera said.
The Wolves, whose 2020-21 season is on hold like all other minor hockey teams in Canada, made Tiya an honorary member of the team before their campaign was halted by COVID. Meanwhile, Tiya is skating on the backyard rink looking forward to next season when she can drop the ‘honorary’ status. “Oh my gosh, I just can’t wait,” Tiya said. “I’m so excited.”