In June 1999, Hicksville resident Samantha Mahler was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She was 3 years old. Samantha immediately began receiving chemotherapy, but three months after her last treatment, she relapsed and in December 2001, through a donation made by her older sister, received a bone marrow transplant. She has been stable for the past 10 months.
In February 2002, then 11-year-old Sarah Weippet of Hicksville, was also diagnosed with ALL. She spent seven and a half weeks in the hospital, and in May her younger brother donated the bone marrow for Sarah's transplant. Six weeks later, however, Sarah relapsed. She is currently receiving chemotherapy treatments two- to three-days a week.
Although both the Mahlers and the Weippets have health care coverage, excessive doctor co-payments, prescription costs and lab bills have placed a large financial burden on both families. While Samantha is on less medication now than she was a year ago, the Mahlers are currently being hit with more than $500 a month in out-of-pocket expenses for medication and special blood tests. For the Weippets, medical support consists of more than 20 pills a day, not to mention hospital visits, chemo and blood tests.
"Insurance covers a good part of it, but labs are what costs the most," said Lucy Mahler, Samantha's mother. "When they send out certain types of blood work I can only use certain labs [which insurance does not cover.] They also take tests and draw her blood to make sure she stays 100 percent grafted to what her sister is. That's $380 alone for just that one test."
In an effort to help both Sarah and Samantha and their families financially, the Hicksville-Jericho Rotary Club is sponsoring a '50s dinner dance on Saturday, Nov. 2. All proceeds from the dinner dance will be donated to the Mahler and Weippet families for their medical expenses. "The whole purpose of the dinner dance is to raise money to pay for medical expenses for these two little girls," said Dr. Peter Rocco, past president of the Hicksville Rotary Club.
James Bentson, president of the Hicksville club, said, "The more people we can get to come, the more money we will raise. The hall will hold 250 people. If we can get that many, then we will accomplish our goal."
Early signs of ALL may be similar to those of the flu or other common diseases, such as a fever that won't go away, feeling weak or tired all the time, aching bones or joints, or swollen lymph nodes. Mahler said she first noticed there was something seriously wrong when her daughter began suffering from night terrors and sporadic fevers as well started getting bruises all over her body and losing all color.
"Here was this child who was never sick, very energetic who was now sleeping to 10 in the morning and by noon goes back to sleep again," said Mahler. "I carried her into the doctor's office, that's how weak she was. He tried to run blood work on his machine and it wouldn't go through because her counts were so low. I knew something was seriously wrong, but not until they said leukemia did I know how serious it was."
Currently, Samantha must go to the doctor once every two weeks in order to monitor her platelets which have been decreasing. "They watch her when the platelets are going low because it is a sign that something could be going on with her bone marrow," said Mahler. "The tests determine if she is a graft of her sister. If they see her platelets go too low they will do a bone marrow test." She will have to be monitored for the rest of her life.
In Sarah's case, another bone marrow transplant is out of the question because she has already received a lifetime dose of radiation to kill the cancer cells. "She has also received radiation to the brain and chemo," said Marrisa Weippet, Sarah's mother. "Unfortunately, some of her leukemia cells laid dormant [after the treatments] and it came back more aggressive than before."
Mahler said her first reaction was whether or not her daughter was going to live. "The first thing that pops into your head is 'is she going to die?' and 'am I going to lose her?'" she said. Over the past three years, Samantha has attended school for only a handful of weeks and has spent her birthday and several holidays in the hospital. Like Sarah, she is home schooled and must watch what she eats, where she goes and the way she does things.
Although they live in the same community, Weippet and Mahler did not know one another until after Sarah was diagnosed. "My son is in the middle school and knew her," said Mahler. "He sent her a card and in it he wrote 'my family's gone through the same thing, here's my phone number if your mom wants to talk.' She called me and that's how we got to know one another."
Weippet said that Lucy Mahler has lent her tremendous support over the past few months. "She has been so helpful," she said. "I don't know what I would have done without the support of my family and friends ... In addition, everyone at the hospital has been phenomenal."
For both families, getting through each day is hard. "When we found out [she had leukemia] we were shocked," said Weippet. "When we found out she relapsed it hit us harder than the initial diagnosis. We just take things one day at a time."
Mahler said, "When her birthday came last year and she was in the hospital, I cried my eyes out [wondering] if she was going to be here. Then my birthday came and she was. Having her here on my birthday makes it a very joyous day."
The Hicksville-Jericho Rotary Club's '50s Dinner Dance to raise money for Samantha Mahler and Sarah Weippet will be held on Saturday, Nov. 2 from 7 to 11 p.m. at Levittown Hall. The event is $40 per person, available in advance or at the door and includes a hot buffet dinner, beer, wine, soda, dessert, coffee and tea. There will be live entertainment by Jukebox Saturday Night and prizes will be raffled off. For more information or to purchase tickets, call Dr. James Bentson or Dr. Peter Rocco at 931-1177.
Anyone who cannot attend the dance but would like to make a donation can do so by sending a check, payable to the Hicksville-Jericho Rotary Club, to:
161 Levittown Parkway
Hicksville, NY 11801.
When sending a check, please specify that the money is for the Weippet and Mahler families.
Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) is the most common form of leukemia in children, and the most common kind of childhood cancer. According to the cancer.gov website, "[ALL] is a disease in which too many underdeveloped infection-fighting white blood cells, called lymphocytes, are found in a child's blood and bone marrow."
ALL affects the white blood cells and causes leukemic cells to accumulate in the bone marrow, replace normal blood cells and spread to other organs including the liver, spleen, lymph nodes, central nervous system, kidneys and gonads. In the United States, about 3,000 children each year are found to have ALL. ALL affects slightly more boys than girls and occurs more frequently among whites than blacks.
Treatment of ALL depends on age, laboratory tests results and whether or not the patient has been previously treated for leukemia. The primary treatment for ALL is chemotherapy although radiation therapy and bone marrow transplantation are also used in certain cases.
For more information about acute lymphoblastic leukemia visit www.cancer.gov.