Lending a Helpful Hand

Andrew’s Helpful Hands Touch Families of Children with Cancer

Winner of the New England Press Association (NEPA) Award
Category: Human Interest
Published in Bay State Parent Magazine

Imagine that your two-year old is showing alarming symptoms of diarrhea and lethargy.
Imagine your shock when he is diagnosed with leukemia so advanced, he must be
admitted to the hospital immediately. Your life as you knew it stops and you are thrust
into a world of medical terminology, treatment, and trauma. You want to do everything
you can to help your son get better.

But it’s not easy. You have another child who needs your attention, a job that won’t give
you the time off you need, and bills that are spiraling out of control. You’re facing
bankruptcy; your toddler is facing much worse. It’s unimaginable.

That is, unless you’ve been there. Parents John and Zenaide (Zee) Swenson of Hudson,
MA, have. When their youngest son Andrew was diagnosed with Acute Lymphatic
Leukemia (ALL), they faced a disease they knew nothing about, and all-important
decisions regarding treatment.

“You’re not making good decisions, you’re making the best of the worst decisions, and
you don’t even know if it’s the best,” says John.

After five long years of chemotherapy, remission, relapse, a bone marrow transplant, and
many more monumental struggles, Andrew lost his battle to leukemia on July 28, 2002,
one day after his 7th birthday.

Now through Andrew’s Helpful Hands foundation, started by Zee’s brother John Sousa,
the Swensons are committed to making sure other families don’t have to face both cancer
and financial crisis at the same time.

John Sousa remembers the helplessness he felt while watching Andrew suffer from Graft
vs. Host Disease (GVHD), a complication from the bone marrow transplant. Andrew’s
skin was burned, red and unbearably itchy. In an attempt to distract him, Zee had
Andrew make “high five” handprints.

Though it all, Andrew always thought of others. “Andrew wanted to help his friends. He
said we should both start the foundation and that we would do it together. His wish and
his dream was to help others so they would have a home to go back to,” says John.
Andrew’s Helpful Hands was born, sealed with the tiny handprint of Andrew. Andrew’s
handprint is now the foundation’s logo, a indelible reminder of how on little boy’s pain
has made a profound impression on the lives of many.

The mission and passion of Andrew’s Helpful Hands is to help local families of children
in need of a bone marrow transplant. The foundation helps through financial assistance,
emotional support, fundraising efforts, and more… all aimed at allowing the family to
“focus on their child during recovery.”

“Families need more than financial help… they need emotional help. They need someone
who’s ‘been there.’ We know the anguish,” says Zee.

The Swensons know first-hand the financial toll a catastrophic illness can take on
families. The darkest hours of Andrew’s illness became even darker when John lost his
job. The Swensons had to remortgage their home to help fund a bone marrow drive for
Andrew.

“Families have been crushed financially because the corporate world doesn’t give
leniency. The hell they go through just dealing with the illness is incredible. To lose
your home [in the midst of that] is just ridiculous,” says Zee.

Since its inception four years ago, Andrew’s Helpful Hands has assisted nine families and
their children in Massachusetts and Connecticut. They’d like to do even more.
“Our organization is all volunteer. Every penny we make we turn right back into the
families,” says Zee.

The Shartiers of Gardner, Ma is one of those families. Bonnie Shartier’s teenaged son
Danny was diagnosed with Leukemia in January 2002. Bonnie was battling breast cancer
at the same time. She and her son received chemotherapy treatments in the same
hospital.

“That first year and a half he breezed through treatment,” remembers Bonnie. But in
August 2003, he relapsed. The only course of treatment left was a bone marrow
transplant.

“Because he wasn’t in remission, his doctor said that he only had a 10% percent of
getting through the transplant itself. He was a very sick kid when he went through
transplant, “Bonnie recalls. “He made it through… almost to day 300.” Danny passed
away November 23, 2004. He was 16 years old.

“He amazed his doctors at every turn, remembers Bonnie. “Whatever the doctors said, he
did it. He wanted to get back to school. He wanted to learn how to drive. Then he got
sick from a lung infection. His immune system was weak. It was a rapidly moving
infection. This poor kid. He went through so much. To have this happen… But then I
look at it and say, we had an entire extra year with him because of the bone marrow
transplant.”

Because of the help Andrews Helpful Hands gave the Shartiers, Bonnie and her family
were able to spend that last year focusing on Danny, rather than financial strain. Bonnie
knows that the help they received “gave me more time to be with my son. I can never
repay them for that.”

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Trish

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