The Human Spirit: Ya'ala Yali

“I was finally hit by that school bus, and I’m doing just fine," Yali Derman says.

Yali Derman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yali Derman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On a sunny spring afternoon, Yali Derman is sitting crosslegged on the hospital lawn on Mount Scopus together with her professor and the other nursing students discussing cultural challenges in health care. She’s spent the day caring for the mix of Jewish and Arab children in the wards of the Hadassah University Medical Center. Blonde, pretty and vivacious, Derman could be the cover girl for an American magazine. In fact, she’s the winner of the 2012 Glamour magazine Top 10 College Women competition.
Glamour, for anyone who didn’t grow up in the United States, France, Sweden, Italy, Germany, Spain, Russia, Greece, Poland, South Africa, Brazil, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Mexico or any South American country, is one of the globe’s most widely-read women’s magazines. Twelve million women read Glamour every month.
Over the past half century, the magazine has featured 10 outstanding university students each year. For example, Martha Stewart, the American business magnate, was tapped for this award when she was in college. At the beginning of its history, the Glamour awards reflected dress style, but over the years, the emphasis evolved to saluting acts of kindness – what we call hessed in Judaism. Yali Derman was one of the 10 winners out of 1,400 nominees, and when – at the awards ceremony in New York – the top prize was announced for “the most charitable spirit,” Derman won that one, too.
The Highland Park, Illinois, native manufactures tote bags under her own label, and next week she’ll be dedicating a children’s playroom in the pediatric hematology and oncology department in Chicago’s Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital. She’s 21, and by all indications her future seems dazzling. But that future didn’t always look that way.
Born in 1990 on Yom Kippur, she was only four when diagnosed with leukemia.
Other parents might not have noticed the subtle symptoms – the hard-to-quantify decrease in vibrancy and vitality. Derman’s parents – themselves children of Holocaust survivors – are both physicians and understood the dire consequences of their daughter’s illness. Derman underwent a debilitating course of chemotherapy, pulled through and started kindergarten on time.
Then, at the Lag Ba’omer picnic in third grade, she suddenly began to see double. The cancer was back. This time it was present in her brain.
The oncologists at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial (now the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital) recommended a relatively new and controversial procedure: bone marrow transplantation. Her two older brothers were tested as potential matches. Remarkably, her brother Ben – four years her senior – turned out to be such a close match that he could have been her twin. Her parents decided that transplantation offered her the best chance despite its risks. Derman knew it was risky, too, and asked her mother if she knew of anyone who had died while undergoing bone-marrow transplantation.
“I remember explaining to Yali that everything could be okay, and someone could be run over by the school bus on her way to school,” said Carol Rosenberg- Derman.
Yali survived the tough procedure, which creates a battle between the grafted bone marrow and the host’s. The thick golden curls that surrounded her face fell away. Said Derman, “When you are 11 years old, losing your hair is very hard. Life is about image, and you care what you look like. My curls were part of who I was.”
But when she was inundated with brightly colored bandanas, the standard head covering of the sick girls and boys on the ward, Derman rebelled.
“The bandana became a symbol of what I didn’t want to wear. I got to the point where I accepted the hair loss, but I didn't want to walk around with the typical sign announcing that I had cancer. I wanted to transform those bandanas. I wasn’t going to wear them, I was going to do something creative with them.”
She had learned to sew from her father, Gordon Derman, a plastic surgeon who is also the household fix-it man, but regular sewing needles weren’t allowed on the ward because of possible pricking and infection. Using an oversized crafts needle, Derman sewed the bandanas into tote bags for herself and for nurses. At first the bags were simple, but soon she was adding pockets and decorations.
She was home recuperating for a year. Her mother left her hospital-based position as an internist and took on a more administrative research position that she could do from home. (She was subsequently chief investigator on the Women’s Health Initiative, which exposed the dangers of hormone therapy.)
Derman was home-schooled in English and Hebrew subjects. Throughout the recovery and afterward, she kept on sewing.
“Many kids who have cancer treatment develop learning disabilities,” she said. “The art was a way of expressing myself and using my mind. Art was also my escape.”
While she was still in the hospital, the Make a Wish Foundation, which offers patients who might die a dream come true, approached her family. Her parents turned down a gift from them. They had enough money to take their daughter to Disneyland and the funds should be used for needier families.
BUT NOW Derman had a wish. She wanted to produce handbags with the legendary “Kate Spade” – Kate Brosnahan, a former fashion editor at Mademoiselle magazine who had created an empire in fashion bags and other accessories. Make a Wish forged the connection. The resulting limited-edition (300), black-with-paisley Kate Spade handbag raised $50,000, all donated to Make A Wish.
“I loved the idea of giving money and not getting,” said Derman. “I felt so lucky that I had a great charity to work for, and got to design with Kate’s team under her label. Kate guided me and gave me the voice and the leaping-off point to start my own company.”
Derman was now sweet 16. At school she founded the Va’ad Vogue club, where high school students would bead bracelets and crochet hats. But it was time to start her own brand of totes. She named it Yali’s Carry On – reflecting both the light, oversized bags that are great for airplanes and her message of putting disease behind her.
“I started the company hoping to raise $1,000 with my first bag. I came $12,000 ahead,” she said.
This time, the profits were donated to KIDDS – Kindness is Doing Something Special for Kids, Inc. – a charity associated with the hospital where she received her care, and where she was inspired to study nursing by the compassion, comfort and loving care of the nurses. Despite the educational setbacks of fighting cancer, she was accepted at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. To expand her vistas as a nurse and improve her Hebrew skills, she decided to spend her junior year in Jerusalem, at the school named for another of her role models: the Henrietta Szold Hadassah Hebrew University School of Nursing. In her spare time, Derman teaches self-expression workshops for sick and healthy kids in handbag making.
“I am perfecting a structured way to integrate the creative arts into nursing care for pediatric oncology patients,” she said. “I know from my own experience that children often find it easier to use the visual arts to express and project their feelings about living with illness. I want the handbag-making to be a springboard for guided conversation.”
She sees her birth on Yom Kippur as prophetic.
“I had to pray a little harder than some to be written in the Book of Life,” said Derman. As she points out, she’s from a family of survivors. Her personal motto is what she calls her hiddur mitzva, “the beauty of giving,” going beyond what is required to find the beauty of life.
Next week, Derman will be in Chicago at the grand opening of the Lurie Hospital and the playroom for which she’s raised $150,000 from sales of her gorgeous canvas totes with their vibrant, multi-hued peacocks. She has loved the year in Israel, despite the small accident she had here. She was hit while boarding the light rail in Jerusalem. When she called her parents from the emergency room, she told them: “I was finally hit by that school bus, and I’m doing just fine.”
Ya’ala Yali.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.