Prognosis: Life

130 Israeli children battling cancer experience a week in London

By
August 29, 2019 21:33
ONE-HUNDRED AND THIRTY Israeli children fighting cancer enjoy the sights of London for a week-long v

ONE-HUNDRED AND THIRTY Israeli children fighting cancer enjoy the sights of London for a week-long vacation.. (photo credit: BRIAN SCHRAUGER)

LONDON – Just after takeoff on an El Al flight from Ben-Gurion Airport to London recently, a plane-wide pillow fight broke out. Lifting my sleeping mask to see what the commotion was about, I was creamed with spongy missiles being hurled with shouts and peals of laughter. Instead of calling for order, flight attendants shot photos on their smartphones.

Virtually all the assailants wore bright green T-shirts. Emblazoned on the front was a large purple logo. Stylized Hebrew letters evoking the Star of David radiated a circle. And on each back, in English, were the words “Zichron Menachem. TOGETHER We Shall Overcome.”

With a seating capacity of 279, our Boeing 777 included 130 Israeli children fighting cancer along with another 110 volunteer facilitators. Ranging in age from seven to 70, we were on our way for a week’s vacation in London, all expenses paid. Places they went and things they did rivaled any London vacation. But the real story, the real revelation, was the spirit in which they embraced the journey.

Zichron Menachem, the sponsor and organizer of the trip, is an Israeli nonprofit organization. Headquartered in Jerusalem, the entire focus of the organization is supporting kids with cancer – and their families, too.

Its namesake, Menachem, is the son of ZM’s founders, Chaim and Miri Ehrental. Menachem, their eldest, battled cancer from the age of 15 months until his death at age 14 in April 1990. It was, simultaneously, the death of a firstborn and the birth of a dream. Literally.

“I sank into dark when Menachem died,” says Miri, “but God had different plans.”

One night Chaim had a dream that ignited a vision for the future.

“All the knowledge, all the experience we have accumulated through these years,” he said to Miri, “it is inconceivable that all of it has been in vain.

“We have been given a mission from above,” he continued. “We must gather ourselves together and give to others what we lacked: companionship, support, good advice, a sympathetic ear. And it must include assistance to parents to cope with their healthy children, too.

“We can sit with the sick child in the hospital so that the parents can take a break from the disease.

“We can provide information about medical and bureaucratic procedure, help family members to enjoy life – and give them a way to cry their hearts out without being shattered to pieces.”

And so, in the same year Menachem died, Zichron Menachem was born. Zichron is the Hebrew word for memorial. Put together with Menachem, the meaning is “Menachem’s Memorial,” but indicating a living thing, not a monolith or building.

Twenty-nine years later it is a fulfillment of Chaim’s dream and on a scale he could not have imagined.

In addition to a guesthouse for families while children from out of town are being treated, ZM offers support groups for parents, an educational day center in Jerusalem, its own blood bank, custom wigs for kids who lose their hair during treatment, a hair donation service, psychological and social support, big brothers and sisters, weekly parties, and three annual adventure camps, all expenses paid.

OUR LONDON adventure began as soon as we landed at the city’s Luton Airport. Disembarking on the tarmac, five buses waited patiently while an army of photographers went to work.

Boys stuck out their tongues and huddled with big brother volunteers; girls took selfies with big sister counterparts; physicians and nurses grinned like children; and for his part, one volunteer carried a child in his arms who could not walk on her own.

When, at last, all were off the airplane named Sderot, the entire El Al crew joined the group for a photo. Before they could escape, the captain of the flight was swept off his feet, held aloft by hefty teens while all sang him “Happy Birthday.”

After checking into a Holiday Inn, filling all its rooms, there was no time to linger. After sandwiches and snacks, and a few private medical exams, all of us were back on buses for the famous London Eye, a 168-meter tall cantilevered Ferris wheel.

Against the backdrop of the Thames, Parliament and Big Ben, every tourist’s eye turned toward the site of Israeli kids with cancer, chanting and chatting in Hebrew as they waited in the queue.

One of the most compelling dynamics for each patient on the trip is that they are not treated as anything but kids. Between each other and with the entire Zichron Menachem team, they can be themselves without being viewed through the lens of their diagnosis.

“But if they want to talk about things that are weighing on their minds, they always can,” says psychologist Carl Hochhauser, a volunteer since 2008.

Embedding himself with those who are adolescents and young adults, Carl relishes opportunities to listen and walk with kids dealing with difficulties far beyond the normal things young people face, things like a return to dependence on parents at the very age when, normally, they would be gaining independence.

And, of course, fears of what course their cancer will take. Will it be defeated? Will it return? Will I die? Will one of my friends die?

The objective, he tells me, is to face the issues without denying them, while at the same time transforming them into tutors, if you will, that are teaching them how to live.

That means not making the mistake made by some friends and family members – namely that their pain, suffering or possible death are taboo subjects to discuss.

Sometimes, too, the matter of God comes up. The question often asked is why would he allow this to happen to me?

Teaching at a local yeshiva, Hochhauser is well versed in dealing with these kinds of inquiries.

“The best answer,” he tells me, “is simply, I don’t know, but always emphasizing that the most important questions are not “why?” Instead they are ‘How will I react?’ and ‘What am I going to do?’”

David Gomel has addressed these very matters. At age 25, he is the oldest member of the young people on the trip. Raised a Christian in Honduras, he began questioning his family’s faith when he was only 14. In the end, and entirely on his own, he converted to Judaism. Leaving parents and siblings behind, he made aliyah, immigrating to Israel when he was 19.

One day, after completing military service in the IDF, he noticed a nagging pain on the underside of one knee. After several trips to physicians who detected nothing, he decided to get an MRI scan.

The diagnosis was osteosarcoma, an especially nasty kind of cancer creating tumors that turn to bone. In most cases, it requires amputation. Although doctors recommended this course, David refused. Instead, in October 2018, the knee was removed and replaced with an artificial one.

Still walking with a limp, he is fully aware that the cancer could return. Now an agnostic, his eyes reflect a soul much older than 25 years of age. Although he does not ignore the question why, his daily focus is on how and what: How will he deal with things yet to come? What will he do when they come?

BECAUSE THEY are still in treatment, many kids on the trip cannot ignore their illness. The reason they are able to join the excursion is because Zichron Menachem brings along a hospital-quality portable clinic, including sophisticated technology tools and a team of oncology experts, including specialty physicians and nurses. Kids who need blood counts checked, oxygenation levels measured, meds distributed, or a simple checkup for weariness, are able to visit a clinic set up in our London Holiday Inn.

One physician joining the medical team is Dr. Or Reuven, who is always smiling and ready with a kind word. A pediatric oncologist, he heads up the bone marrow transplant department at Hadassah-University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem.

I teased him one evening while en route back to our hotel. He had fallen asleep on the bus after an especially long day. “At least you can go to bed when we get back,” I said.
His eyes still smiled, but before he spoke there was a glint of professional steel. “Well, no, not right away,” he replied. “First, we must see kids in the clinic.”

In fact, none of the kids go straight to bed each night. Those who do not go to the clinic go instead to a support group before heading off to sleep. Sharing personal matters, they encourage one another before the lights go out.

Their ability to hold each other up and, at the same time, lift the spirits of caregivers around them is remarkable.

Early on in the trip, I went down to breakfast and found myself sitting next to a 12-year-old boy. Sporting an oxygen tube used only when alone, probably at night, his pallor was somewhat less than pink. I said hello while he sipped on a drink, food on his plate uneaten.

“The coffee is delicious,” he said. “May I get you a cup?” Speechless, I nodded. Standing in a queue, it took time and effort. He brought it with a smile, and I tasted it and agreed, “Best cup of coffee I’ve ever had.”

As the week came to a close, I was able to sit down with Sira, a delightful 14-year-old with whom I had tried to meet for several days. Like David, she, too, is battling osteosarcoma. Eyes twinkling, she was exuberant.

“I’ve had so much fun, I don’t want to go home,” she enthused.

As an Arab Israeli who is Muslim, did she ever feel uncomfortable with the religious expressions of others on the trip?

Her first response was a perplexed look, then, answering with a grin she said, “Of course not! None of that matters.”

Indeed. While she and her fellow warriors are fighting a devastating illness, cancer is not their primary diagnosis. Thanks to Zichron Menachem, what is revealed and nurtured is the real prognosis. Their foremost infection is life.

To learn more about Zichron Menachem, including ways to partner with it, go to Zichron.org

The writer was a guest of Zichron Menachem.


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