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‘She liked to help people’: Calgary family donates blood in memory of five-year-old daughter who died of cancer

Family and friends of a five-year-old girl who died of brain cancer in 2022 donated blood in Calgary on Tuesday in honour of her memory.

Penn Manabat was diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma on April 30, 2021, and underwent two craniotomies.

Her mother, Catherine Gulinao, says her daughter needed multiple blood units during her treatments, which gave her another 14 months with her before she died on June 21, 2022.

“For her second surgery, she actually had to have her entire blood supply replenished, so if it wasn’t for generous blood donations we would have lost her on the operating table,” says Gulinao.

Gulinao is grateful to the donors who prolonged her daughter’s life and were part of the motivation behind the inaugural Penn The Brave Blood Drive, nearly two years after her death.

“March is a really hard month for us because this is when she did relapse back in 2022 and it’s just a way for us to give back,” she says.

“She was an old soul. She was very wise, she was a foodie. She loved Japanese pancakes, homemade gnocchi was her favourite, bubble tea. She loved books, she loved spending time with her family so this is just a way we can honour her legacy.”

Penn Manabat, five, died on June 21, 2022. (Courtesy: Catherine Gulinao)

More than 20 seats were filled by donors, a mix of friends and family, at Canadian Blood Service’s clinic at Eau Claire Market, all sporting a butterfly pin, the symbol of hope and change for the ependymoma brain cancer community.

The family says it is a small way to pay it forward and to help keep their daughter’s memory alive for her older sister and now 10-month-old baby brother.

“I don’t like to think of that as a sombre thing, I think of it as a celebratory thing and in general a good thing. We are helping people which I think is a good thing to do and something I think Penn would be proud of,” says Sheldon Manabat, Penn’s father.

“I think more than anything that’s why I like to do these sorts of things because Penn would have wanted to help people that’s just kind of the person she was.”

Manabat also rolled up his sleeve to donate Tuesday, revealing a tattoo of a red string that travels up his arm to his heart, with the names of his family intertwined in it.

He says it was inspired by Penn’s favourite book, The Invisible String, which he read to her most nights.

“Before I would tell her, ‘No matter where you are, our hearts are always connected. Anywhere and everywhere, always and forever,’” he says.

“There was a bit of catharsis to have that etched into you, like when they were writing Penn’s name I was watching it, it was a good healing in a way.”

Sheldon Manabat shows off his The Invisible String tattoo while he donates blood on March 19, 2024. (Courtesy: Sheldon Manabat)

The family has also launched a charitable organization, Penn The Brave, which provides ice cream and books to oncology patients at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, in addition to funding research and treatment options for kids with cancer.

“Ultimately our loved ones want us to be happy and that is what always gets me as well where when I’m really sad or in the depth of my grief is Penn wants me to be happy and I always constantly remember that,” says Gulinao.

“I do it for Penn and I do it for my family. I remember telling Penn I would take care of her family and by extension myself and so that drives a lot of what I do,” says Manabat.

Canadian Blood Service has 1,100 open appointments that need to be filled by the end of March. You can book an appointment online or find information at or by calling 1-888-TO-DONATE.

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