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Hannah’s Rosh Hashanah miracle

  • Hannah1 (2)
“That moment when you hear the diagnosis is like being trapped – there’s no going back,” says Julian Katz, recalling the moment he was told his 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, had a life-threatening, inoperable cancerous mass in her skull. “How do you break that news to your own child?” he asks rhetorically.
by TALI FEINBERG | Sep 06, 2018

The last time the SA Jewish Report spoke to the Katz family, they were about to uproot their lives in Johannesburg and travel to St Jude Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in the hope of saving Hannah. It is one of only three places in the world that focuses on paediatric cancers and offers Pencil Beam Proton Radiotherapy, which would give Hannah her best chance to be treated with minimal side effects. “But there were no guarantees. We were literally going into the unknown,” recalls Katz.

There was a tiny window of opportunity for Hannah to travel safely between treatments, and they scrambled to meet that deadline. “Travelling with a critically ill, immuno-compromised child made the most straightforward tasks a logistical nightmare. We left behind all that was secure and familiar, expecting to be gone for three months which evolved into an entire year. We arrived to no accommodation, but were met at the airport by one old friend, and a group of caring strangers, friends of friends, who became our Memphis family,” says Katz.

Their son, Jonah, had to be home schooled, and Julian and his wife, Hayley, had to stop working. The financial costs of the ordeal were overwhelming, and Julian’s father passed away while they were in the United States. Most heartrending of all, “We had to have conversations with Hannah that you wouldn’t wish to have with an adult – asking her if she wanted to be here and fight for her life, or not,” says her father.

Hannah spent all day, every day at the hospital, enduring blood tests, scans, and chemotherapy pumped through a port into her body. “It made her so ill, she couldn’t eat or drink for five days at a time,” says Katz. Then there was the proton therapy itself, which most children are sedated for. “You have to stay dead still, or it can be dangerous. They put a rigid mask over your face, which is then bolted onto a robotic arm. Yet, Hannah found a way to meditate through it, astounding her doctors.”

Despite the fear, change, and pain, there were so many positives in this traumatic time. “The small Jewish community of Memphis took us in, and there was always somewhere to go for Shabbat and Yom Tov,” recalls Katz. This was echoed in the support received from around the world, especially when Julian’s old school friends raised funds to help the family go to America, and introduced them to international medical experts.

In the middle of all this was DL Link. “One day, I arrived at the hospital while we were still in South Africa. I found Hannah laughing and smiling, her room filled with balloons as she giggled with Terri [Friedland] from DL Link who was at her bedside. It was our first introduction to this magical organisation, which supports more than 780 cancer patients and their families in our community.

“Terri was an angel who appeared regularly, with smiles, encouragement, advice, gifts, love, and care. She and DL Link joined our whole family on this journey, and often had the answers, before we even knew the questions,” says Katz. Even after the family went to Memphis, DL Link was there to support them.

And then there was Hannah herself, the heroine of her own story. “She was incredibly strong and had amazing mental resilience. For example, they would scan only every three months, so between scans, we had no idea if the treatment was working. She also broke every one of her doctors’ expectations. They thought she would need feeding tubes, which she managed to avoid, and she even went to school at the hospital. She gave us no option but to fight. Ultimately, we have merely been the facilitators and support team, while her courage, bravery, and focus have been the real wonders that got her to this day,” says Katz.

Miraculously, after 14 months of the most intense treatment her body could endure, Hannah is in remission. Her hair has begun to grow back, her new eyelashes frame her wise, sparkling eyes, and she has only four weeks of maintenance chemotherapy treatment left. Diagnostic scans followed by surgery to remove her port will hopefully complete her treatment, after which she and Hayley will be able to come home.

But Hannah will have to be vigilant for the rest of her life, as childhood cancers are known to reoccur. Initially, she will have to return to America for scans every three months, “and she may face issues we don’t even know of yet”, says Katz.

Looking back, the family has experienced a blow to their sense of safety, but they’ve learned to recalibrate and decide what’s really important. “This is our ‘new normal’ and we’ve all grown and connected with the world in a very different way. There have been lots of opportunities in adversity. We’ve never wanted to be victims, and we’re not bitter. We have always sought to be empowered. We want to give back to the community, and contribute in a way we didn’t before,” says Katz.

One way they are doing this is by assisting DL Link, which brought so much joy to Hannah in the darkest of times. The organisation has outgrown its current location, and has purchased a property in Sandringham with the intention of creating a support centre for its community of cancer warriors. “As an architect, and now a member of this community, I am able to infuse this project with my experience of the world-leading St Jude facility, which focuses on the overall well-being of the cancer families,” says Katz. He will be bringing this expertise to the project as he draws up plans for the new centre, pro bono.

To other parents enduring such an ordeal, Katz’ advice is that, “You can’t make plans. There is no plan. You literally live 20 minutes at a time. Keep at it. That is what drove us to America. And don’t give up – miracles happen when you least expect them.”

  • Follow Hannah’s journey on the Facebook page, “Hannah our Hero Warrior”. To contribute to DL Link, call 011 485 3269, email [email protected], or visit www.dllink.co.za

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