When the i98 Illawarra Convoy tracks its route from Appin South 32 to Shellharbour Airport, nine-year-old Tyde “Tuff Tyde” Wheatley will be in the thick of it, waving, honking and doing his level best to convey even a fraction of his excitement.
Not far behind, his sisters 12-year-old Tylah and eight-year-old Ocean, will be on the kids’ bus, also making the most of what their mum Ashleigh says is the family’s “favourite day of the year”.
There is good reason behind the enthusiasm of this Woonona family. In 2017 when Tyde was just two and a half years old, a chance trip to the family doctor turned life upside down.
“He had a mild temperature, and I had a doctor’s appointment booked for myself, so I took him with me,” Ashleigh recalls.
“The doctor thought he did look a bit pale, so drew some blood to check for iron deficiency. Within an hour the pathologist called, and I knew something had to be very wrong. He sat me down and said, ‘We don’t have any time to discuss. You need to get Tyde to Wollongong Hospital. They’re already waiting for you. He has leukemia.’
“At that point, I had no idea what leukemia was. The doctor explained that it was cancer. Then it hit me: my son had cancer. Though I couldn’t bring myself to say the word for a long time.”
Tyde’s leukemia was deemed “high risk”, so by that afternoon, he was having his first chemotherapy treatment. It preceded two years of daily treatments during which Tyde rarely saw home.
A lot of it was spent in isolation, away from his sisters.
“I missed a lot of time with my girls, a lot of Ocean’s babyhood, and a lot of firsts,” Ashleigh says.
During this time Ashleigh’s family and the Illawarra community rallied around the Wheatleys – though she says they’re one and the same.
Tyde is now cancer-free and just celebrated his ninth birthday. Though there is always a chance of relapse, his older sister is a bone marrow match – something there is only a 25 per cent chance of.
And he’s trying to give back to the convoy.
“This year he ran his own fundraiser at school, selling slinky apples for $1. All the money he raised and his own pocket money, he donates to the Illawarra Convoy because he’s reached an age where he understands what the Illawarra Convoy has done for us, how much they helped and continue to help,” Ashleigh says.
Departing from Appin South 32 this Sunday (19 November) at 8:15 am, this year’s i98 Illawarra Convoy route follows down Mount Ousley, turning left onto Masters Road, then right onto Five Islands Road, past Bluescope, then through Warrawong, Windang, Warilla, then right onto New Lake Entrance Road near McDonald’s Warilla, then along to the Oak Flats interchange where they will turn right onto the Princes Highway.
The convoy itself ends with a Free Family Fun Day at Shellharbour Airport, where there will be rides, markets and food stalls, touchdown helicopters joy flights, cars for convoy displays, Kye’s FMX Jam Motocross demonstrations, Eljay’s Freestyle Junkyard show and more.
Singer-songwriter Ricki-Lee will hit the stage with backup dancers and will also be joined by Aussie rockers Thirsty Merc to provide the main stage sounds. They will be supported by Altered States, The Vandastruts, Kate Young Angie Childs & Friends, Polly Hazelton and The Goat featuring Tim Stevens.
For more information (including a rough itinerary so you can pick out your spot to wave the convoy along), visit i98 Illawarra Convoy.