After their son Jake was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a rare form of eye cancer, on his first birthday, Michael and Janice Coney’s lives was turned upside down.
It was during this chaotic part of his life that the Coneys encountered Victor Calvagna, the child cancer consultant and Puttinu Cares founder whose death following a traffic accident shocked the nation.
Michael spoke to Lovin Malta about his recollections of the man who helped save his son’s life.
“I think Dr Calvagna’s biggest challenge was that he essentially had to become a jack of all trades,” he said.
“Every type of cancer and every kind of treatment is different but scaling issues due to Malta’s limitations meant that he had to become a specialist on all of them.”
In fact, after Jake’s initial diagnosis, Dr Calvagna had to carry out research on the condition, liaising with doctors in the UK where he was receiving specialist treatment and guiding his parents along the process.
Sometimes Jake would react negatively to chemotherapy and Dr Calvagna would be called in, rain or shine, to identify the issue and sort it out.
“He would develop a temperature in the middle of the night, Janice and I would call Dr Calvagna and he’d come over after a full-day shift,” Michael said. “And he was just one of his patients. He had so many patients and faced so many challenges that I think it’s fair to say he used to literally work 24/7.”
Sometimes the extreme stress of the job would get to Dr Calvagna.
Besides dealing with his patients on a medical level, the doctor would also have to deal with their parents, including some who would have challenged his prowess after having read something about their child’s condition on the internet.
“There were some intense moments,” Michael recounted. “Some parents who are posting tributes to him now used to have savage debates with him, but despite all that tension and stress, he’d also build relationships with them.”
“He was a hard guy and he often told us off, but he did so with love and affection.”
It was this kind of bedside manner and personal touch that really endeared Dr Calvagna to the families whose lives he impacted over the years.
“He really went the extra mile, not only treating children for cancer but the parents for the trauma they were passing through as well,” Michael said. “He took care of my life when I was struggling, he took the time to get to know my wife and I, and we built a strong relationship with him.”
One particular moment that stands out in his mind was an act of kindness by the doctor during a trip to Lourdes that Puttinu Cares had organised for patients and their families.
“My son, who was two years old at the time, had been placed on steroids and was so hyper that my wife was exhausted.”
“Dr Calvagna came to spend an evening with our son just to give Janice a break. It’s not just about what he did for the kids, but about what he did for the parents as well.”
Jake is now eight years old and his eye cancer has been cured, a great deal thanks to Dr Calvagna, although the risk of a potential future outbreak remains.
The Coneys have moved to Canada to be close to a hospital that specialises in the kind of treatment he requires, a decision Dr Calvagna had endorsed.
And the Coneys kept in touch with the doctor over the years too, exchanging Season’s Greetings and visiting him when returning to Malta.
“The reality is he became part of our family.”
Besides Dr Calvagna’s skill as a paediatric oncologist and his bedside manner with patients and their parents, Michael praised the doctor for founding Puttinu Cares, the cancer support group which provides accommodation in the UK for patients who require specialist treatment and does way more work behind the scenes.
“Puttinu doesn’t just provide patients and their families with a bed but helps them settle into an unfamiliar new country and navigate their way around. It’s traumatic enough having a sick kid, let alone dealing with the additional level of stress that comes along with having to go to a strange land where you don’t know anyone.”
“I used to live in London but one particular family had never even left Malta and suddenly had to go to Manchester for a three-month programme and had no idea what to do.”
“Puttinu helps these people out on so many levels and Dr Calvagna helped build this organisation because he realised there was a need for it.”
Dr Calvagna’s funeral will be held on Wednesday at 3:30pm at the Mosta Rotunda. Attendance will be limited due to COVID-19 protocols but the funeral will be broadcast live on Puttinu Cares’ Facebook page.
He leaves behind a legacy of dedicated care that will live long in the memories of the patients he treated, the parents he guided, and the nation’s collective soul.
Cover photo: Jake Coney, Centre: Dr Victor Calvagna, Right: Janice and Jake Coney
Lovin Malta sends its heartfelt condolences to the entire Calvagna family during these difficult times