December 6, 2007
Charity fulfills dreams of young Israeli cancer patients
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Almog Suliman, 16, is from Nesher, a small city on the slopes of Mount Carmel, west of Haifa. He's a good-looking teen with a cocky swagger and a tough-cool attitude. Almog was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago and went through eight months of intense chemotherapy.
"I never threw up," he boasted. "I was really strong. It wasn't that hard for me."
When he returns to Israel, Almog is scheduled for a grueling round of 12 treatments of chemotherapy in his brain.
In spite of his bravado, he remains mostly ignorant about his cancer and his treatment.
"I don't want to know," Almog shrugged. "I would rather not know anything."
Each Larger Than Life kid has a different way of dealing with the treatment. Some joke about it, calling each other "ugly cancer patients" in the same playful tone that healthy teenagers would call each other derogatory names. Others make a game out of it.
Sigal Birkenfeld, project manager for the Larger Than Life Israel team, described how during a car ride on the trip the kids started playing a trivia game involving their medications. Someone would throw out the name of a medicine, and the others would have to guess the color of it.
A few have turned to religion for comfort. One Muslim girl from a fairly secular family began wearing a head covering when she was diagnosed with cancer. It served a dual purpose for her -- hiding her bare head and giving her a source of faith and strength. Another boy started wearing a kippah, even though his family was also not particularly religious.
Most remain hopeful, even when kids around them suddenly disappear. They don't ask questions when a friend they made at camp the previous summer doesn't return.
Surprisingly, the group's morale was not affected when Bar Shema, 12, had to be hospitalized on the fourth day of the trip because his blood cell count was dangerously low. He was flown back to Israel for treatment but faxed the group to let them know he was feeling better and was in high spirits.
The unbounded enthusiasm and remarkable strength of the volunteer staff was instrumental in keeping the momentum of the trip going. For two weeks, they shlepped all over the West Coast with the children, waking up at 7 a.m., dressing them, administering medication, providing counseling, monitoring their health, taking them shopping and enveloping them with the warmth and love of a family away from home.
Despite all the support they receive, not all of the children have a smooth experience. One young child who recently underwent brain surgery was particularly combative, and the only person who could calm his outbursts was David Lev, the father of a child who survived cancer several years ago. His personal experiences helped Lev connect with some of the most withdrawn and difficult children on the trip.
Sharon Malka, 32, is a professional children's entertainer in Israel and volunteers for Larger Than Life throughout the year. Goofy and playful, Malka was overwhelmingly affectionate with the kids, constantly wrapping them in hugs, grabbing hold of their hands and throwing his arm around their shoulders.
"At the end of the day, we all sit and share stories and cry," said Shmueli, who has worked with children with HIV in the past. At the staff meetings, they recounted difficult conversations they had with the kids, released emotions they had held back all day and vented their frustrations.
"It's an emotional experience meeting these kids," said Donna Bender, a board member who often joins the visiting children on their daily excursions. "It's really a privilege to be with them. Their extraordinary strength and courage is inspiring."
Shlomoff, Larger Than Life: Los Angeles Family board chair and a successful real estate developer, hosted the first Shabbat dinner for the Israeli group at his home in Beverly Hills. After dinner, a few of the older boys begged to see his Ferrari.
"You don't see Ferraris in Israel," Shlomoff said. "These boys only saw them in the movies."
The next night, Shlomoff and a few of his friends surprised the children at their hotel with a dazzling lineup of seven or eight Ferraris and took them for rides.
Shlomoff took the oldest in the group, an 18-year-old with leukemia whose brother had donated bone marrow to save his life. The transplant went well, but then two months before the trip, the cancer came back aggressively.
"It is a very disgusting, aggressive disease, the boy told me during our ride," Shlomoff said. "I was touched that he was opening up to me like that."
When the boy told Shlomoff that it was his dream to drive a Ferrari, Shlomoff pulled over and let him take the driver's seat.
"He was the happiest guy in the world," Shlomoff recalled. "When we got back, he said to me, 'I've fulfilled my biggest dream. Now I'm ready to die.' Holding back tears, I looked at him and said, 'You're not going to die. You're going to get better and make lots of money and buy yourself your own Ferrari.'"
He said the boy nodded and smiled. For more information, call (877) 952-7437 or visit http://gdolim.co.il (click "English" at top left), or e-mail email@example.com.
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