“In May 2012, my son, who was 23 months old at the time, was diagnosed with leukemia. It happened almost accidentally — our little Ivan was bitten by mosquitoes, and the affected areas were bruised due to a low platelet count, it was later discovered. We visited our doctor who administered a series of tests, and the answer came shortly after that — there were cancer cells in my son’s blood.
We were incredibly frightened by this news,” said Yulia.
“It seemed as though it was only yesterday when there were normal things like family dinners, kids’ laughter, plans for the future… and suddenly the earth crumbled under my feet. I did not know what the next day would bring and whether a happy ending was there for us,” Yulia recalled.
A Few Months Later
Ivan underwent four months of treatment in Russia.
“We came to terms with our new life: Round-the-clock IV tubes, weighing fluid intake and output, vomiting, high fever, mouth sores, thorough cleaning of the hospital room twice a day — walls, ceiling, everything. Any germ could be fatal. Testing and ward rounds on a daily basis became our routine. The most frightening day was when my son had his first centesis. He stopped breathing, and the doctors had to act quickly to save him. When they let me into the room, I couldn’t recognize my son. He looked all blue, and hemorrhagic stains were all over his body. I had my first gray hairs that day,” said Yulia.
“Then the first chemo treatment came with side effects which meant a sleepless week for me. I don’t know how I handled it all. I only know now that a person can survive a week with no sleep. I listened to my son’s breathing, took his temperature over and over again, and hugged him, but he hurt so bad that he wanted no cuddling. He even asked me not to touch him. He was less than 24 months old then.”
The rules were very strict. Ivan was not allowed to leave his room for a walk or to see his relatives for fear this might affect the treatment. It took Ivan two months to recover from the first high-dose chemotherapy. The tests after the treatment showed good results, and this brought hope to the family.
“After the first chemo, we heard this sweet word — remission! It was a small step towards our big victory,” Yulia recalled.
A NEW HOPE AT SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER
The family continued their search for a medical center where the needed bone marrow transplantation could be performed.
“Looking back, I can say that we did everything quickly and correctly. The second day after my son was diagnosed with leukemia, we were told a bone marrow transplant was necessary.
As soon as we learned this, we started to explore our options, searching for an appropriate clinic and comparing prices. However, there were dozens of choices. I looked for people who had first-hand experience, and their reviews helped me choose Sheba Medical Center.
My intuition didn’t let me down! We had a warm welcome, and the Sheba staff immediately took a blood sample for cross-match testing. My son was allowed to eat anything he liked. It was like heaven. My weakened toddler could, at last, eat dairy and fruit. In a week, the fourth round of chemo began. The doctors immediately inspired my trust, and I never doubted their professionalism,” said Yulia.
It took two months from Ivan’s arrival for the bone marrow transplantation procedure. Within that time, Ivan had a round of chemotherapy, recovered, and underwent complete pre-surgical testing.
While the testing was still ongoing, Ivan’s brother, Nick, was determined to be a perfect donor match.
“I cried my eyes out over the news both from happiness and concern. My concerns turned out to be unfounded though. The psychologists, doctors, and social workers did a wonderful job on Nick. My son went to the donor procedure with calm and complete awareness. We were all together there. Ivan was so worried about Nick; his eyes glinted with tears. I thank God for the opportunity for my family to have been there together that day.”
December 2, 2012
“We dressed the room with colorful posters and balloons to cheer Ivan up.
Before the procedure, we sat in the fully sterilized room holding hands, cheering each other up, hugging, and smiling, and the surgery seemed less scary.
We were called to another department for stem cell harvesting. It was another separate and comfortable room with a cozy chair and a TV. A wonderful nurse assisted with the procedure. It took four hours to perform, and the time passed quite fast as I was busy caring for my son. When the harvesting procedure was successfully finished, the stem cells were taken for counting and additional processing.”
The transplantation began at 6 p.m. The peripheral infusion took about 10-15 minutes. After it was completed, my son had a whole life ahead of him.
Ivan’s brother returned home a day after the procedure, while the rest of the family stayed in Israel another five months for Ivan to recover.
“The nurses at Sheba were exceptional. They celebrated dancing when we learned the donor cells had survived,” Yulia remembered. This was one of those rare cases when a child was ready to be discharged from the hospital only 15 days after the bone marrow transplantation.
After the surgery, Ivan returned to Sheba for regular checkups. “The doctors’ and nurses’ attitude is amazing. Also, the medical coordinators are just brilliant and very supportive. Our medical coordinator, Rimma, was with us from the very first moment until our trip back to Russia. She also accompanied us doing the post-surgery checkups,” said Yulia.
“Before the transplantation, we had been followed by Professor Kaplinsky. His calm and confident attitude made me believe that everything was going just as planned. After the bone marrow transplantation, my son was in Dr. Bella Bielorai’s care. I believe she is the BEST doctor in the whole world! I have no words to express my admiration for her professionalism. We are happy to have been treated by her.”
Returning to a Normal Life
Ivan recently returned to school and lives life just like other kids. He is a smart and vivacious boy who loves sports and dreams of becoming a doctor.
“During our stay at Sheba, we met many children and their parents who were also undergoing leukemia treatment. We are still in close contact with some of them. I now know for sure that cancer is not a death sentence. Our time at Sheba convinced me of this.
My advice for anyone who is facing leukemia is: Do not waste your precious time! Act!”
Eight years have passed since Ivan was diagnosed with leukemia, and almost eight years have passed since he received a bone marrow transplant. With each day that goes by, the further our fears recede. We live without looking back, only forwards – always with a positive attitude.
My family has always been convinced that once we won, the disease would not return to our home. In fact, nothing in our present-day lives even reminds us of cancer. Only the scars from catheters and ports remain as testimony to what we went through, and Ivan doesn’t have any noticeable side effects from the treatment.
While we coped with many difficulties in the past, Ivan’s overall health is normal now, with no need for frequent doctor visits. Once a year we visit Sheba for check-ups, and at most, Ivan has tests every six months.
Our daily life is radically different from a few years ago. Instead of medical appointments, Ivan and his brother Nick are busy with sports! Ivan is a champion Sambo wrestler and football player, with plenty of medals and awards under his belt. We support our children in any endeavor, and we’re completely absorbed in communicating with them and learning about their interests. When we relate to Ivan, we refuse to treat him as a disabled person. We treat him as healthy, so he’ll feel healthy.
Since Ivan’s treatment at Sheba, we’ve celebrated many wonderful events. We were able to enjoy vacations with the family, during which I skydived and my husband and I went scuba diving together to the bottom of the sea.
I remember how I felt when I first heard Ivan’s diagnosis. I didn’t really understand what we were facing. But now I understand that challenges are given to those who are able to pass them. If you respond by sinking into self-pity, whining or complaining about life – life will slip through your fingers. But, instead, if you face each day with gratitude for life, you’ll be rewarded with happiness. According to our faith, we will live.
During Ivan’s fight against leukemia, he made one wish each year when he blew out the candles on his birthday cake: he wished to participate in sports clubs. Now, he’s a pint-sized athlete! Five years ago, I was afraid to dream about having these types of experiences – but now, we’re doing them. Dreams come true, don’t be afraid to dream.