Alisa Camplin and Finnan’s Gift, one year on.
March 26 2012, 11:24 am

The Herald Sun spoke to Alisa Camplin and Oliver Warner about Finnan’s Gift, and the incredible support they received from the community, on the one year anniversary of the death of their son.

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Alisa Camplin’s departed son is forever in her heart

You can tell that the photos are much loved. You can tell they have been well thumbed.

Tiny baby Finnan - often covered with tubes, sometimes with eyes open just a peek - in his cot at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

But as much as those images of her departed son cause her pain, Alisa Camplin also feels warmed and comforted by them.

She refuses to shy from the question that would reduce many people in her position to tears.

Last Tuesday was the first anniversary of the death of her son, Finnan. He died after fighting a huge battle - six heart operations in 10 days.

A year on, there is no self-pity, defeat or misery when Alisa Camplin is faced with those inevitable questions.

“When people say, ‘Do you have children?’, I say, ‘I had a little boy, Finnan. He is an angel in heaven now, but he was a beautiful little guy.’

Most people are shocked, but I say, ‘It’s OK, I like to talk about him.’ He was so cute. He tried so hard. But sometimes the odds are too big to overcome.

“The easy answer (about children) would be to say, ‘Not yet’, but that would be untrue. Finnan was here for 10 days. Part of me feels I have an opportunity to make people feel comfortable talking about it.”

Three days short of the anniversary of Finnan’s death, Camplin sits in Port Melbourne cafe Creme with that ever-present smile across her face.

Young mums and students gossip or flip through newspapers, but Camplin almost doesn’t see them.

Instead, she is a woman on a mission. Camplin, like her son during his short and difficult life, has always been a fighter.

First she won that famous aerials Olympic gold medal at Salt Lake City in 2002 with a pair of fractured ankles, and then she took bronze four years later only five months after a full knee reconstruction.

When her son, Finnan Maximus Camplin-Warner, died last March after being born six weeks premature, it never occurred to her to wallow in her pain.

She and husband Oliver Warner quickly set about forming Finnan’s Gift, a charity to help lift awareness for congenital heart disease and raise $300,000 for an echocardiology scanning machine at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

Even that wasn’t enough: Oliver and Alisa are determined to raise up to $20,000 a year for a Finnan’s Gift grant.

On April 18 that money will be donated to the nurses in the paediatric intensive care unit at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

Next year’s grant is likely to go to perfusionists, who help operate the heart-lung machines that allow surgeons to operate.

Public donations might get them some of the way, but most of the money from now on will be raised through charity runs, sausage sizzles and small pledges from family and friends.

It might end up a life’s work, but the pair are determined not to let the memory of their little boy fade.

“It wasn’t until the point where we could do the handover (of the machine) that we realised how much Finnan’s Gift had given us along the way,” says Camplin.

“It’s almost like you get body-surfed along. My husband and I were pretty certain after Finnan passed away that we wanted his life to stand for something, and we didn’t want him to be forgotten.

“He fought so hard in hospital and to honour him we needed to be brave and do something positive. Maybe it’s from my time in sport, but you have to move forward all the time.

“Once we put Finnan’s Gift in place, we had something to work towards and the community helped us move forward, and before we knew it we were further along in the emotional side of Finnan’s death.”

To say that Camplin and Warner have been able to make something positive from Finnan’s death is not to suggest it did not shake their very foundations.

He was their dream realised, the perfect present for a woman who had it all: Olympic gold, high-flying corporate career with IBM and a prestigious board position with the Collingwood Football Club.

They went into what Camplin calls hibernation, escaped to New Zealand for a break to avoid the prying eyes and questions, and used a counsellor for some time to deal with their grief.

But Camplin believes her sporting background had prepared her for many types of adversity.

Her story has brought many cynical, hard-bitten men from the football industry to tears, but she continues to forge ahead.

None of it lessens her overwhelming grief, but it might at least put it to good use.

“I think I have kind of got the internal way of dealing with it and the external way. Sport taught me to compartmentalise it, and that could be bad, because I knew I might lock it away and never deal with it,” she says.

“I didn’t want to not feel it because Finnan is still my first-born son, and it was important Oliver and I could find a special place and keep him in our hearts.”

Soon the idea of the fundraising drive caught on; when the couple appeared on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes it went into overdrive.

Automatically Collingwood and Essendon stepped in, with a game dedicated to the cause.

To witness Camplin moving methodically from MCG radio box to radio box, telling her harrowing story over and again, was nothing short of heroic.

The game raised $116,254, and by October the couple had handed over that precious machine.

It wouldn’t help Finnan, but the 3D images it beamed out would help make the surgery of every heart patient just that much safer.

For Camplin, the AFL community was showing its best side.

“I wasn’t even aware Collingwood would do something,” she says.

“We were overwhelmed when they said they were working with Essendon to have a big fundraiser at the game. It grew legs all of its own - players were tweeting, and Nick Maxwell donated his 150th game shoes (raising $10,000), and Darren Jolly went to hospital to help. You get very emotional that people want to do something so magnificent.”

There were other, less tangible ways the AFL community wrapped its arms around her: “Just getting back after we went to hospital and after we went into hibernation, going back to that first game and watching it with the Collingwood board, it is safe in those community environments. You don’t get lost when you are moving with the support of a group. We have been very lucky.”

Collingwood has known plenty about grief in recent years.

The father of defender Harry O’Brien took his life in 2009, and the son of fitness guru David Buttifant also suddenly lost his life.

Buttifant set up the N.I.C.K. Foundation in honour of his 20-year-old son - along with Finnan’s Gift, it is one of 35 charities for which the Pies raise $1 million a year.

Pies chief executive Gary Pert says Camplin’s bravery blew him and fellow board members away.

“She was an inspiration in so many ways before she went through this challenge, but we appreciate and respect her even more,” he says.

Pert has walked away from conversations with Camplin close to tears, yet at the same time buoyed by her positivity and stoic nature.

“Not only as a father but a close friend of Alisa, with what she went through I wanted to be there and support her, but at times I struggled to stay strong around her,” he explains.

“In the early days, when she started to come back down to the club, she took me through Finnan’s photos of every single day and told me the stories of those moments, but also the challenges of every minute of every hour of every day. They are very loving and appreciative of the minute amount of time they had with Finnan. They are really proud of this little boy.”

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire knew what Camplin was made of even before this 12-month journey.

“When she won that bronze medal (at Turin in 2006), it was one of the most extraordinary performances ever,” he says.

“I saw her here at the Westpac Centre do her first leg press after her reco, and to see her stick that landing with a bad knee, knowing it could explode at any time, it was just unbelievable.

“She has a tremendous capacity to give and is a very switched-on, intelligent woman, and hopefully in her time of need, we stood side by side with her. That Collingwood ethos came through. It was so great to see everyone mobilise.”

This year’s $20,000 grant is still $1800 short, but already Camplin is throwing herself into years ahead.

The marathons and family fundraising have been topped up from some unlikely sources.

She received an email from an Australian soldier recently who was keen to give some money from an inheritance.

“I was so choked up. ‘Are you serious? You already do so much for our country’,” she says.

She and Oliver want a family, but first there was the matter of getting through the first memorial of Finnan’s death.

“It’s always tough the first time because you don’t know how it’s going to feel,” she says.

“I like seeing his pictures. I see my son. I am warmed by the familiarity of it. Other people might see a picture and see a boy in heaven and a lost life. I don’t know if it’s the sports psychology or my outlook on life, but I see the positive things. I choose to.

“I don’t ignore the hurt and the pain because they make me feel connected to him, and I will always feel sad when I see the pictures, but I will also say, ‘Look at you, you handsome little man’.”

And those plans for kids?

“Very much so. We hope 2012 will be about more children … 2011 was definitely Finnan’s year so 2012 will hopefully be about the next bunch.”

Click here for more information and to donate now to www.finnansgift.com.au.

This story was originally published in the Herald Sun. Click here to read at heraldsun.com.au.