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'It was like coming home': N.S. woman battling cancer makes unlikely return to Sable Island

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HALIFAX -

A Nova Scotia woman fighting cancer made an unlikely return to her childhood home.

Nova Scotia’s Sable Island is a mysterious place to the vast majority of Canadians, evoking images of ponies, seals and shipwrecks.

But for one local woman fighting cancer, it means home.

On Monday night, Sylvia Dooks-Higgins and her sister Janet Lynch returned to the sands of Sable Island, thanks to the kindness of strangers.

“It was like coming home,” said Sylvia, who was just six when her family moved to Sable Island.

Sylvia and Janet’s father Arthur Dooks became the last of the Island’s lighthouse keepers when he was assigned there in 1955.

“We were free-range kids. We just went everywhere on the Island,” recalls Sylvia. “Every day was a different adventure. Everyday we went to the beach, it was always something different that washed up, or died there.”

“The lighthouse was about 100 feet high, and we would climb it all the time. Up the ladders and down,” says Janet.

The sisters share fond memories of the island and its unique wildlife, including ponies and seals.

“We even had a pet seal for a while. We were down to the lake, and we seen a baby seal all by itself, and the seagulls were closing in on it, so we took it to the barn, and kept in the barn,” recalls Sylvia.

“When we got into the lake, the seals would be right in there with us. They never hurt us or anything, they would just swim with us and pop up right in our face,” adds Janet.

But some other ocean animals were more of a worry.

“Mom would sit on the bank while we were swimming, and if she saw a shark coming she would holler ‘Shark!’ and we would get out of the water,” laughs Janet.

The Dooks lived on Sable Island until 1960. Sylvia remembers the phone ringing as they prepared to leave.

“My father wasn’t in the house, but when he came in he asked me if anyone had called, and I said, ‘Yes, some man named Dief called and he said we could take two ponies home with us’,” recalls Sylvia.

“And my father said ‘Sylvia, that’s John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada!’. And I said, ‘well he said we could have two ponies!”

The sisters didn’t know if they would ever return to their childhood ocean playground, but a comment to family started a series of events that would lead to a very special trip.

“I said to my daughter-in-law and son, ‘it would be good to see again’,” recalls Sylvia.

Her daughter-in-law Colleen Murphy listened, and started a Facebook fundraiser, giving a truly sentimental gift at a time that Sylvia really needed it.

“I have multiple myeloma. I started treatment again this month, I already had nine months of it before,” says Sylvia.

The fundraiser didn’t meet its goal, but the family reached out to Fred Stillman of Kattuk Expeditions

“But there were no seats available,” says Stillman, meaning the earliest a trip could be organized was 2022.

That’s when the kindness of strangers came into make Sylvia’s wish possible.

“A friend of mine who was booked on this particular trip said ‘look, if you need two seats just take mine, I’ll go next year’,” says Stillman.

Stillman says he learned more in one day with the sisters than he did in all of his previous trips to the Island.

“Worth every bit of it for me to hear all those stories," said Stillman.

But like all good things, this day came to an end, for two happy sisters, filled with warm memories.

“Our life out there was very unique… not many kids have that kind of childhood,” 

A unique childhood, leading to a unique homecoming over 60 years in the making.

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