As far as his parents and doctors knew, Rio Fowler was a healthy toddler, with no health issues or medical conditions. Until the day his older sister brought home a stomach bug.

As Kidspot reports, the 16-month-old from Sydney, Australia, was born with nothing more alarming than a few birthmarks and a slightly shorter leg. Dad Ryan told Kidspot Rio was “rearing (sic) to go,” and very close to his older sister Remy. Then, in November, Remy came home from school with a stomach virus.

Ryan told Kidspot:

“One Friday afternoon, she came home from preschool with gastro and she is pretty resilient, just threw up once and slept for a few hours and then she was fine.

Rio got sick and he was so unwell we ended up taking him to the emergency department that night.”

At first, it seemed like Rio would recover, and he soon went home with his family. However, days later, he was back in the hospital. His parents watched as their son’s blood pressure and heart rate kept going up. Ryan told Kidspot what it was like to hear their son might not survive the night:

“Rio’s heart was dilating, and the doctor was very frank with us, he told us, we’re just trying to get Rio to live through the night, and we’re unsure if he’s going to make it.

We were just … overwhelmed by that. I started contacting family and friends and just saying, can you pray? Because I don’t know if my boy is going to live.

A week earlier he was healthy, he was playing, and now we were saying our goodbyes.”

Though Rio did make it, doctors couldn’t understand what had happened to turn a simple case of gastroenteritis into a medical emergency. After a long series of tests, they diagnosed Rio with arterial vasculopathy disease, a condition in which the arteries are unable to supply sufficient blood to the vessels and organs.

Rio’s condition had been triggered by his illness, and doctors warned his parents it would only get worse. What’s more, the condition was terminal and so rare that they had little hope of treating it. As Ryan wrote on GoFundMe, the disease generally affects older people and is virtually unknown in someone as young as Rio:

[M]ost pediatric doctors informed us that they had never seen before … leading us to believe that what Rio was diagnosed with was so rare, he potentially was the first/only child in the world to have it.

Over the next several months, Rio underwent four surgeries, including two amputations. He constantly struggled with high blood pressure and heart problems, and also experienced kidney failure.

Rio’s heartbroken parents could only watch their son fight a losing battle. Ryan wrote on GoFundMe:

Though his condition was diagnosed as terminal, Rio continued to inspired us all with his smile, fight and will to never give up.

At Christmastime, Rio was transferred to Bear Cottage, a children’s hospice that cares for life-limited children and their families. Mom Karen told Kidspot that being able to spend Rio’s last weeks together in the hospice meant a lot to their family:

“It meant Remy could be with us and we could spend our last Christmas together. Remy was also able to meet other kids like her who had really sick siblings, and this helped her feel less isolated, it gave her someone to talk to.”

On January 15, Rio passed away. But his parents are determined to honor his memory by helping other families in a similar situation.

On a GoFundMe called “Rio’s Legacy,” his parents are working to raise money to support children who have been diagnosed with a terminal disease (as well as their families).

Drawing on their experience in the hospital and at Bear Cottage, the Fowlers want to upgrade and improve hostel rooms in the ICU and donate to Bear Cottage. They also hope to build “Rio’s Lodge,” a facility that would support families of children with rare, terminal conditions.

Ryan says his family is so thankful for the support, generosity, and prayers they received during such a difficult time. Now, they hope they can pay that forward. As he wrote on GoFundMe:

“We would be so lucky if through Rio’s journey we were able to help those in need and offer a gift of hope … because like Rio everyone child is so fearfully and wonderfully made.”

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