March 8 is International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the achievements of women. We’re proud to mark the occasion by sharing stories of inspirational local women who love where they live and rise to the challenges of life in our region.
Most of us remember that one teacher who planted an idea, nourished a love for something that became our special skill, our life’s work. Crystal Leonardi had two. Drama and English teachers inspired the then Cairns teenager. They gave her the skills, and the permission, to explore her love of language and storytelling. Crystal couldn’t have known it back then, but writing would become vital for her, later, when life got very tough.
Crystal’s fourth child, Sebastian, arrived in 2017, a very welcome boy after three daughters. Early on, there were niggling worries, signs that something might be wrong, which doctors dismissed with an “oh he’ll grow out of it”.
“When he was two, I noticed he’d lost the use of his left arm,” Crystal said. “He couldn’t high five. We went back to the GP, and all of a sudden, all of these little red flags all added up to something.” The diagnosis was a stroke, and specialists, suspecting cerebral palsy, ordered an MRI. Instead, they found a large tumor on Sebastian’s brain.
“It was the size of an orange, in the middle of his brain. The Royal Flying Doctor Service took him down to Brisbane that day. Surgery got about half of the tumor out, followed by a year of chemo and lots of treatment.”
As she describes past treatments, and those still to come, Crystal speaks with the clarity of a good storyteller. Telling that story has helped her make sense of, and endure, an awful experience. “It’s pretty tough on a four year old, worst nightmare for any parent. Thankfully, it brought our family closer together, but it is tough on all of us. I found solace in writing about what we were going through.”
It started out as a journal Crystal kept during the long hours at her son’s bedside as he had chemotherapy. She wanted to document everything her family went through, to help her understand it, and, maybe, to help others.
“My husband and I would say ‘it’s so sad, who would want to read this?’ but that shifted eventually. I wrote a chapter. An editor relative said ‘keep going’. I did so much research, sitting there in that hospital. I had stacks of paper, notes on airport napkins. Out of all that, a book came together.”
Boy of Steel was published last September. Crystal hopes it will help others face medical challenges. “I would have loved to have a book like that when we first got to hospital.”
She says becoming an author has helped her gain confidence in the spotlight. “I was always a bit of an introvert, but now I’m ready to go. I want to talk in front of 300 people. I want to share my story. This has been so empowering. I want my children to see their mum doing something other than being a mum. Through this crazy situation, I’ve found what I was supposed to do.”
Crystal Leonardi is an author and motivational speaker. Read more about Crystal and her book Boy of Steel