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These swashbucklers are hooked on Halloween

One month before her due date, Julie Desroches developed an abdominal infection that forced the birth of her second child via emergency C-section. Baby Emma was fine, but Desroches was not. She was taken to the ICU on Oct.
Julie Desroches
Julie Desroches started PirateHouse in 2013 as a passion project to celebrate her road to recovery after a near-fatal abdominal infection.

One month before her due date, Julie Desroches developed an abdominal infection that forced the birth of her second child via emergency C-section.

Baby Emma was fine, but Desroches was not. She was taken to the ICU on Oct. 1, 2008, two weeks after the birth.

The infection had taken hold of her intestines, so doctors had to perform multiple bowel surgeries. Complications followed, including a coma and another condition that didn’t allow her to leave the hospital. The mother-of-two would end up missing the first three months of her daughter’s life.

“It was traumatic,” recalls the child psychologist, adding she’s still coping with the effects of what happened eight years ago, including low energy levels, chronic pain and exhaustion, a feeling she equates to having the flu.

“In hindsight, I’m glad it happened with my second (child) and not my first, so that I could still have hope and understanding that we would be OK, and that we would still bond, and that she was in very good hands. My husband was at home at the time and his mom came and lived with him as well, but it was awful. To be away from her. … Really, it was a fight to survive. I was just in survival mode and just trying to get through each moment of the day. I really wanted to stay alive and have an opportunity to be in their lives,” she explains.

To this day, doctors still don’t know what kind of infection it was, but the Burnaby resident suspects it was appendicitis gone wrong.

While the fight in the hospital bed was hard because of the excruciating pain, Desroches says adjusting to life after she was released was tougher. Because she had been paralyzed during her hospital stay, she had to learn to walk again.

“I couldn’t go up the steps in front of our house, so there was just lots of rehabilitation in that way. I guess I assumed when the ordeal was done, I just would get back into my life and be OK, but as it turns out, it had a really significant effect on my body.”

A celebration of life project

Despite being very weak at times, for the last four years, Desroches has taken any burst of energy and has put it towards spending time with her family and her Halloween passion project – PirateHouse. During her recovery, she spent lots of time watching pirate movies and always took a liking to them – not the scary, murderous ones, but the Robin Hood types.

Since 2013, the family of four has decked out their front lawn at 5970 Portland St. in a pirate theme to raise money for St. Stephen Children’s Centre in Africa. Since its inception, nearly $10,000 has been raised to bring a roof, solar electricity and clean water to the school. The hope this Halloween is to buy desks for the students.

Desroches says PirateHouse, which includes an online auction, not only symbolizes resistance and a celebration of life, but it honours the “pirate crew” who helped her fight her illness.

One of the most honourable pirates of them all, according to Desroches, is the school’s founder Ben Ssemwogerere, who she met in 2000 while volunteering in Uganda. He had been working on the farm where she had been staying and often offered her a ride on his bicycle to the school where she was teaching.

Through their friendship, she found out he was an orphan and had plans to pursue a college education so he could later start up a school.

“I was just fascinated by him. He just had this incredible positive attitude,” says Desroches, adding she would go on to sponsor his animal husbandry diploma and a certificate in computer applications.

Ssemwogerere was then accepted for an internship in the Netherlands where he’d complete a bachelor of science in agriculture. His goal was to come back and open St. Stephen as a way of offering his community the same opportunity that he was given through Desroches’ sponsorship.

“When I was in the hospital, I thought about him all the time, and thought, ‘OK, this is really hard, but his life was harder,” she says, noting she plans to travel to Uganda next year for a visit. “He never wallowed in his own misery, he just kept going, and he went on to help so many other people.”

Getting to PirateHouse

Where: 5970 Portland St., Burnaby
When: Halloween night (Monday, Oct. 31), drop in anytime between 5 and 8 p.m.
Who: Everyone is welcome; the display is child-friendly and not too scary