Rachashei Lev: supporting children with cancer since 1989

Rabbi Gesheid started with a small whisper of his own heart, one man caring enough to try to bring some comfort to those in need, giving Rachashei Lev its name, meaning Whisperings of the Heart.

EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD  Stav with her national service volunteers, traveling to the hospital for treatment in the Rachashei Lev Dream ambulance.  (photo credit: DANIEL COHEN)
EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Stav with her national service volunteers, traveling to the hospital for treatment in the Rachashei Lev Dream ambulance.
(photo credit: DANIEL COHEN)
It all started in 1989 when then-yeshiva student Reuven Gesheid visited a friend who was a cancer patient at Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv. The next time Gesheid went to visit his hospitalized friend, he showed up with bourekas and rugelach to pass around the ward. Soon, he started coming with more people to visit other patients. Eventually, the hospital put him in charge of their volunteer program.
And that’s how Rachashei Lev (Whisperings of the Heart) – one of Israel’s premier nonprofit organizations, offering an astonishing array of support services for children with cancer and their families – began.
Rabbi Reuven Gesheid never planned to start a national pediatric cancer support center. Rather, he started with a small whisper of his own heart, one man caring enough to try to bring some comfort to those in need.
Today, Rachashei Lev serves 500 children a year from all parts of Israeli society. Everything the organization’s staff and volunteers do is designed to help children and their families cope with the illness and its treatment, easing their pain and smoothing the way whenever possible.
Their activities range from accompanying children during medical exams and treatments to taking them on trips throughout Israel and abroad. Rachashei Lev’s support team, on call 24/7, is a vast network of 350 volunteers, 28 young women doing National Service, as well as professional staff.
The CEO of Rachashei Lev is Shimi Gesheid, son of the founder. By day, Shimi coordinates National Service volunteers from the haredi sector and oversees the organization as a volunteer.
Case one: Nine-year-old Hodaya was diagnosed with a soft tissue sarcoma type of cancer. While undergoing treatment and rehabilitation, Hodaya was unable to walk. During that time, she and her mother attended a summer camp in Austria sponsored by Rachashei Lev. Hodaya spontaneously arose to play with the other girls at the camp. Hodaya’s mother stood crying from the sidelines, commenting that what the whole rehabilitation process was unable to accomplish, the girls of Rachashei Lev were able to do for her daughter.
Beit HaYeled:
Rachashei Lev activities are based in the pediatric oncology departments of Sheba Medical Center and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital). Some 13 years ago, on the grounds of Sheba Medical Center, Rachashei Lev opened Beit HaYeled, the Children’s House, a homelike environment that accommodates children and their families who need to be close to the hospital during treatment. Medical procedures are even scheduled according to the availability of space for the family in Beit HaYeled.
The 5,000-square-meter Beit HaYeled includes 20 fully furnished suites of 75 square meters. Each suite includes two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living area with a kitchenette and a private outdoor space. In the common areas, the staff organizes birthday parties and other celebratory and recreational activities, as well as support group meetings for patients, siblings and their parents. Families are welcome to stay as long as they need. Some stay a single night; one family lived in Beit haYeled for 17 months.
Orna Shalomoff, VP of Foreign Relations Activities and Rachashei Lev spokesperson, said the convenience of Beit HaYeled allows families to “stay, sleep over, get up in the morning, get dressed and go for treatment. Parents or siblings can sleep nearby. Sometimes a patient is hospitalized for four to five months and can’t return home during that time. With Beit HaYeled, the family doesn’t have to go back and forth from home.”
Beit HaYeled serves a second, equally noble purpose. When ill or injured IDF soldiers need a place to stay nearby during treatment, they are allotted suites in Beit HaYeled so they can be treated, and recover, in a homelike environment, surrounded by their family.
Not surprisingly, Beit HaYeled is always fully occupied and Rachashei Lev already has an expansion plan that will add two additional floors and 24 new rooms.
Case two: Two young sons in the same family were both struck with cancer. One son had already passed away and the second son was a patient in the Marion and Elie Wiesel pediatric hospice care unit at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan. While the second son was in hospice care, the mother gave birth to twins. The twins had been carefully screened in utero to make sure they didn’t carry the same risk of developing the cancer that struck the first two brothers.
The family hoped that the twins could serve as bone marrow donors to help save the life of their older brother. Their emotionally charged brit mila (ritual circumcision) took place at Beit HaYeled, which allowed the hospitalized brother to attend. Sadly, he passed away just a few weeks after the birth of the twins.
A multitude of services:
One of the many services of the medical division is to support research analysts whose job is to stay current with all cancer research worldwide.
“They will alert the doctor or nurse that there are trials in other countries that might be useful to a family for whom the local treatment didn’t work,” explained Shalomoff.
Working with a NIS 20 million annual budget raised primarily from private donors, Rachashei Lev provides a multitude of support services, including computers, televisions, comfortable chairs, libraries filled with books and videos, musical instruments, game carts, food service and more. For patients confined to their beds at Sheba Hospital, Rachashei Lev installs bedside multimedia systems.
But that’s not all. The organization regularly hosts performances and celebrity events, along with birthday and holiday parties. National Service volunteers make home visits and accompany the children on trips, fun days, camps and even overseas trips to places like Orlando, FL, Paris and the Netherlands. Shalomoff highlighted the therapeutic benefits of these trips.
“Changing the scenery has been proven to help the child deal with pain and fight the battle of the disease,” she explained.
Recently, Rachashei Lev was invited to visit the Vatican and the staff selected Christian, Muslim, and Jewish children for that trip. Shalomoff said that decision, “really symbolized what we see as a department. Cancer affects everyone.” And whoever is on the ward, regardless of origin or faith, benefits from Rachashei Lev’s services.
On the medical front, families receive consultation with international specialists in pediatric oncology and get help importing and paying for expensive drugs and treatments not covered by the national health fund. Those who require surgery that’s only available abroad get financial assistance. The organization also provides parents with referrals to related professional services, like occupational therapy, psychological support and alternative medicine practitioners.
When necessary, Rachashei Lev holds fund-raisers on behalf of a particular patient who needs help to cover travel expenses, housing and treatment abroad. The unit also hosts groups from abroad, including prospective donors who want to come visit and see the operation. Those interested in visiting may contact Shalomoff at [email protected]
In addition to providing financial assistance directly to families, Rachashei Lev also helps the pediatric oncology units purchase necessary equipment, such as chemotherapy pumps, monitors, ECG machines and beds.
The Dream Ambulance:
One of Rachashei Lev’s most unique services is the Dream Ambulance. Shalomoff calls it a “limo ambulance, with a nurse and paramedic on board, that can provide patients with all their medical needs and services.” Inside the Dream Ambulance is a karaoke system and a 40-inch television screen on the ceiling. The ambulance is also equipped with a camera on the roof that allows its young passengers to see what’s going on outside the vehicle.
The Dream Ambulance is used to take children to the hospital, but also to transport them on day trips to places like the Kotel, the movies and the beach.
National Service volunteers:
A crucial part of the success of Rachashei Lev is the young women doing National Service with the organization. Shalomoff said, “[The National Service volunteers are] amazing girls. They give their heart and souls to the program.”
Case three: Ruthy Mor’s 19 year-old son Yuval was diagnosed with a brain tumor in September 2018. His particular tumor is very common in children, so despite his age, he was cared for by Rachashei Lev. One of the National Service volunteers came to see him shortly after diagnosis.
“That’s when I realized that it’s going to go so much better,” said Mor, “because they are so cheerful. Everything is so happy. He was happy to go to the hospital to meet them.” The National Service volunteers are the same age as Yuval.
Rachashei Lev “becomes a second family,” Mor said. She described how the National Service volunteers would play games and spend time with the children in a big hall in the middle of the children’s department.
“Yuval is very open and would participate in everything they offered.” The volunteers excel at “taking difficult times and making them fun,” according to Mor. “They stay with the kids when mothers need a break.”
She expressed astonishment at what these 19-year-old young women can do.
“They take kids in such a bad state that I would never in my life have the courage to take. They go with doctors, nurses and medical equipment for five days.”
As a parent, Mor said these trips provide “a big break. They are medicine for their spirit. For five days, they aren’t sick anymore.” She struggled with letting Yuval go on his first trip. “It was big, very hard for me to let him go. But you get to know these people and you come to trust them with [your child’s] life.”
Yuval finished treatment this past November and the National Service volunteers made a party for him, celebrating that, three months post-treatment, he can eat strawberries again.
Mor said the National Service volunteers, “made all the difference. I don’t want to think about them not being here. A Hanukkah party. A Purim party. There’s something every other week to look forward to at Beit HaYeled.”
Mor is planning to come back and volunteer, using her artistic skills to help run arts and crafts activities.
“You can never give back the same thing you got. It’s like family. Because Yuval is a grown-up, he was in touch with all the kids and he spent time with the adults. He has friendships with the staff.”
She praised the whole experience with Rachashei Lev as “unbelievable!”
Complete care:
Shalomoff said, “From the first day of diagnosis, we are there to help them with anything that they need, 24/7, inside the oncology ward.”
The staff and volunteers have seemingly thought about every need, no matter how small. Shalomoff illustrated with an example.
“If they come for day treatment, we don’t want them to be troubled to get food for the day, so we provide sandwiches and yogurt and shakes for the kids.”
In addition to the professional staff and National Service volunteers, other volunteers go through rigorous selection and training that includes several months of testing, vaccinations and personal interviews, culminating in official approval by the hospital. Once accepted, they volunteer at least once a week, playing with the children, speaking with the parents, helping to ease their burdens, all while obeying the medical rules for avoiding compromising health of children on the unit.
Shalomoff said there are dozens of active volunteers, including a group of Night Angels who visit Sunday through Thursday from after dinner until around 11 p.m. During each shift, volunteers play with the children, read them books, play cards, sing and provide coffee or a meal to the parents, doing whatever they can to provide a measure of comfort.
“We try to keep them being kids. The doctor’s role is to take the disease out of the kid. Our role is to get the kid out of the disease,” Shalomoff concluded.
For more information: www.rachasheilev.org/?lang=en