If anyone deserved to receive a little festive cheer from Santa it was brave Nathaniel Nabena.
To say the nine-year-old had a rollercoaster 2021 would be the understatement of the year.
The little lad has survived leukaemia thanks in no small part to the amazing generosity of the Sunday People ’s readers.
A family friend arranged for Santa and his elf to visit Nathaniel and sisters Nadia, 11, and Nicole, two, on Christmas Eve.
Dad Ebi beamed: “Nathaniel enjoyed it, it was a surprise. It was something to lift his spirits. They sang songs and danced and asked the children to complete a jigsaw puzzle and gave them gifts.
“Nathaniel got a VR headset which was on his wish list. It will keep him busy while he is isolating at home. He was very surprised.
“Christmas last year was all about his disease. He was bleeding from the nose and the mouth. To see him smiling this time is very special.”
Nathaniel is building up his strength following lifesaving leukaemia treatment and shielding three months after being declared cancer free.
But despite his weakened state, Nathaniel was keen to send a message to our readers who helped raise £216,000 in 10 days to fund a stem-cell transplant at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital.
He said: “I am feeling much better – though sometimes I’m tired. I want to say Merry Christmas – and thank you to everyone.”
At times the Nabenas feared they would be unable to raise cash in time to fund Nathaniel’s lifesaving treatment.
They celebrated Christmas by eating jollof rice, playing Scrabble and exchanging gifts in Croydon, South London.
Ebi said: “We’re so grateful Nathaniel is with us. It’s been a tough year but we are grateful to God and we’re still here fighting.
“I’m really grateful to the Sunday People, to hospital staff and, of course, the British public for helping our case. May God bless everybody who has helped us – this has really helped me through this last year.
“Miracles only work through the help of people. Everybody is part of this miracle.
“For 2022, we are hoping for a full recovery for Nathaniel so he can start his life. The sickness has robbed him of his childhood, so fingers crossed.”
Their celebrations are vastly different to last year, when the family were 3,000 miles apart and fearful for Nathaniel’s health.
Ebi and Nathaniel had travelled to the UK in November 2020 so the boy could have a prosthetic eye fitted, after he lost his left one to another cancer, myeloid sarcoma, in the family’s native Nigeria.
But soon after they arrived Nathaniel was rushed to Croydon University Hospital with a fever and diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, which affects around 100 children a year in the UK.
In the run-up to Christmas 2020, medics gave him tests and he began conditioning treatment, though he was allowed to go to the home of relatives on Christmas Eve.
Meanwhile frantic mum Modupe, 38, and daughters Nadia and Nicole were stuck over 3,000 miles away in Bayelsa, Nigeria.
Ebi, 46, recalled: “We were so worried, he was so sick and we had so much ahead of us. In Nigeria, the kids would have new clothes,
especially for Christmas, and we had family and friends over and all went out for food together and drinks and had a nice time.
“Last year, even though we were staying with relatives, Nathaniel and I had to stay in a room away from everyone else because his immunity was compromised and we couldn’t risk him getting sicker.”
The family were later told Nathaniel’s only chance of survival was a lifesaving stem-cell transplant which would cost up to £825,000 as he was not a British or EU citizen.
After we revealed their desperate situation in February, readers helped raise £87,000 for chemo which improved his condition to the point where he became eligible for the transplant.
Modupe and the girls joined Nathaniel in the UK, and consultants at GOSH kindly waived their private fees to help him, bringing the transplant cost down to £201,103.
But by May the family still faced an urgent race to raise the almighty sum in 10 days, the window of opportunity in which the transplant would have the highest chance of success.
Following a whirlwind People campaign, celebs, including Simon Cowell and David Walliams, helped smash the target to raise £216,000 – and Nathaniel began treatment within days.
“It is quite amazing to think of everything that happened – I don’t think it has sunk in even now,” Ebi
In September we shared images of the heartwarming moment Nathaniel rang the bell at GOSH to celebrate being put in remission.
But it has not been plain sailing since then.
Just a month later he contracted a potentially life-threatening infection and was hospitalised for two weeks with a fever and sickness.
Medics acted fast as Nathaniel’s immune system remains compromised and infections can be dangerous.
He was treated for four nights at Croydon and referred to GOSH for antibiotic treatment over 10 days.
Since then, Nathaniel has largely remained indoors, Ebi, a business analyst, said: “He has been resting up, playing his game and taking each day as it comes. We are currently being extra careful because of the situation with Omicron.”
He is still under the care of GOSH and Croydon hospitals as he is likely to suffer further setbacks, the dad said.
The lad will be eligible for NHS care as the Home Office has granted the family leave to remain in the UK for 30 months, with the
possibility of extending this at a later date.
Deji Sijuwade, senior partner at Alfred James and Co solicitors, said: “The application is now successful, and Nathaniel and the family now have leave to remain in the UK.”
Nathaniel – who is in year five – has had online lessons while he recuperates. His biggest hope for next year is to “make some new friends”.
Ebi added: “He cannot wait to get back in the classroom with the other children.
“He has missed so much after everything he has been through, and he just wants to get on being a normal boy again.”