This site is privately owned and is not affiliated with any government agency. Learn more here.

Marissa Gootjes back on the ice after battling cancer amid vaccination debate

On the same day pro- and anti-vaccination views clashed in the New Brunswick Legislature, far from that clamour Marissa Gootjes took to the ice again to play hockey at a camp in Woodstock after a break of two years. 

It was a refreshing return to regular life for her family after a measles outbreak in May forced them to whisk Marissa from school weeks before the end of her Grade 10 school year. 

The 15-year-old brain cancer survivor has a compromised immune system after chemotherapy treatments that followed her diagnosis two years ago. 

It has been a difficult time for the family, capped off by the measles setback. Marissa’s mother Jan Gootjes held back tears as she watched her daughter skating again.

“It’s so huge, because we watched her during treatment. She tried to stay in hockey and tried to play and she just couldn’t do it,” she said.

Jan and Jim Gootjes enjoy seeing their eldest daughter Marissa back on the ice playing hockey at the AYR Motor Centre arena in Woodstock, N.B., after surviving brain cancer. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

“It was very heartbreaking to see her struggle. She lost the ability to skate backwards completely. As soon as she would try to skate backwards she’d fall. And she lost so much conditioning. Just one skate across the ice and she’d just be gasping for breath and air.”

Marissa, the eldest of three girls, went back to Kennebecasis Valley High School in Rothesay, not far from her home in Quispamsis, last year for days that sometimes left her fatigued and nauseous. She came home to nap and cuddle with her dog, Bauer. She had the immune system of a newborn baby. 

In May health officials in southern New Brunswick announced a measles outbreak of 12 confirmed cases. Nine of those cases were at Marissa’s high school. 

Bill would make N.B. strictest in Canada

New Brunswick and Ontario require parents of schoolchildren to show proof their child has been vaccinated. Both provinces allow parents to exempt their children for medical or ideological reasons. 

New Brunswick’s laws have been in place since 1982 for measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus and polio.

Following the outbreak in the Saint John area, New Brunswick’s Liberal government introduced proposed legislative changes in June that would change those laws to allow only medical exemptions, essentially making vaccination mandatory for all children in public school. 

The law would also apply to children in licensed daycares and would make New Brunswick the strictest jurisdiction in Canada on immunization. 

Members of the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick in Fredericton will vote on whether to make vaccinations against diseases such as measles and mumps completely mandatory except for rare medical exemptions. (CBC News)

For three days this week, lawmakers are scheduled to hear from a long list of speakers with both pro and anti-vaccination views. It is an opportunity for the public to directly tell politicians how the proposed law should be shaped. 

The speakers list included Dena Churchill, a former chiropractor from Nova Scotia who lost her licence after posting unfounded and disproved information about vaccination extensively on social media. 

“I haven’t vaccinated my children,” Churchill told reporters outside the hearing. “I think vaccination should be left to the individual, to look at the individual circumstance and their health. So mandating any policy, I think, is really risky.” 

Those arguments haven’t swayed Education Minister Dominic Cardy, who’s strongly supporting the bill. 

“I think that in general, the people that are against science and against evidence undermine their own cause every time they open their mouths,” he told reporters. 

“You just have to remember that if we’re going to follow the science, follow the evidence, there are no two sides to this debate — like there are no two sides to whether the earth is flat.” 

Marissa, front, takes part in a hockey skills camp in Woodstock. (Brian Mackay/CBC)

Cardy said in his view the bill was about protecting vulnerable school children. 

During the May measles outbreak, school officials immediately notified Jan Gootjes that her daughter might have been exposed to the potentially deadly disease. 

‘Worst part for sure’

On the advice of her doctors, the Gootjes family took Marissa out of school the same day, rushed her to the hospital for emergency preventative treatment, and kept her at home for three weeks. She couldn’t go out or receive visits from friends for fear of re-exposure to measles. 

“That was the worst part for sure: just feeling like she was getting back to normalcy and then having the rug pulled out from under her again,” said Jan Gootjes.  

Gootjes is looking forward to seeing her daughter heading to class in September, hanging out with her friends, playing sports, and enjoying the school year. 

But Marissa still won’t be able to receive vaccinations for at least another three months.  

“And because she can’t be vaccinated, that’s a concern,” Gootjes said. “We have to depend on other people who can be vaccinated to do so, so that we have that herd immunity in place.”

Marissa’s view on vaccinations is that they should be mandatory.

“If everyone gets vaccinated, it means I can definitely go to school, and I will be safe,” she said.

“I think they should be mandatory. Because in the middle of May, an entire school had to just stop, almost get shut down. A lot of us had to go home just because a few people didn’t get the right shots. So I think it’s important that everybody does,” she said.

After hearing from the public this week, the law amendments committee will have an opportunity to recommend changes to the bill before it returns to the legislature for second reading.

If the bill passes, the changes would take effect Sept. 1, 2021.