Gesture of thanks, offer of help


April 25, 2008|By Janene Holzberg

Pop music blared from the radio of an empty Volkswagen Beetle convertible parked in front of Lime Kiln Middle School. The dark blue car was plastered with magnetic banners reading "Groovy" and "Far Out, Man," along with yellow smiley faces and psychedelic peace symbols.

Plunked incongruously on the car's hood amid the hippie greetings and flower-child emblems were a Red Cross and the slogan, "Give Life, Give Blood."

To the friends and family of Anna Tomalis, a seventh-grader at the Fulton school, the car set the tone for the blood drive she organized Saturday. Called "Anna Says Thanks," the upbeat event was the 12-year-old's way of showing gratitude to those who have helped her during her ongoing illness -- by, in turn, helping others in need.

"This has been a whole life-changing thing," said Anna of her rare form of liver cancer. "At first I thought, `I did nothing wrong, why didn't someone else get this?' But then I decided to just do what I have to do [to treat it] and to have a good attitude. Today, I just wanted to do something for other people who need help."

"Anna is just a phenomenal young lady who is wise beyond her years," said Chrystel Bell, who managed the blood drive for the Clarksville family on behalf of the Greater Chesapeake and Potomac chapter of the American Red Cross. "In my three-plus years in donor resources, I've never seen someone so young want to do this."

A stomachache after soccer practice one day in September 2005 set off a roller coaster of health issues that Anna still rides today.

The stomach pain was soon accompanied by a headache and then a fever. Doctors prescribed an antibiotic, thinking it might be strep throat. When her health didn't improve and breathing became difficult, Anna soon ended up in the emergency room.

"The doctors discovered a grapefruit-sized tumor on my liver," recalled Anna. "Two weeks later when I had surgery to remove it, the tumor was the size of a football."

One week after surgery, Ron and Liz Tomalis learned that their eldest daughter has embryonal sarcoma of the liver, a cancer diagnosed in only 10 to 20 people each year nationwide, said Anna's mother.

Following chemotherapy, Anna was cancer-free for five months, Liz added.

But in September 2006 a second tumor appeared, this time on her pelvis.

Since the recurrence, other tumors have developed. Anna has been admitted to Sinai Hospital 70 times and endured multiple chemotherapy regimens without a break until recently, when doctors decided to reassess her situation, her mother said.

"Chemo really takes a toll, but Anna has been amazing," said Ron. "She is knocked down by these full body-blows, then gets right up and is ready to move on."

Many times after receiving chemotherapy, Anna would go immediately out with friends, fighting back the nausea without complaint in order to be a "regular kid," her mother said.

The Tomalises' two other daughters -- Megan, 8, and Julia, 6 -- know their big sister's being treated for cancer, said Liz, adding, "They get very upset when she's admitted to the hospital, but they do talk to me about their fears. Anna often confides in me as well."

Anna's constant determination to fight back and to give back paid off when the results of the blood drive were finalized Monday. Fifty-nine usable units of blood were collected from 62 donors, said Bell, adding that each pint unit can help up to three patients.

"Of that total, 23 were first-time donors, an unusually high number that we often only see at high school blood drives, since 16 is the age when you can become a donor," she explained. "First-timers will often continue to give in the future, and that really helps us out."

John Bailey, a long-time family friend who drove from Alexandria, Va., to give blood, said, "The turnout was a testament to how many people are attuned to Anna's story. She is just amazingly gracious and poised."

Ben Sachs, an eighth-grader at Lime Kiln, stayed around for the entire six hours of the blood drive. Ben and Anna have been close friends since she was in fourth grade at Fulton Elementary.

"We met before her diagnosis, but this whole experience has made our friendship that much stronger," said Ben, who frequently visits her in the hospital and at home. "We are definitely always there for each other."

Anna's natural capacity for empathy was tested last year when a close member of Ben's family was diagnosed with cancer, said her father.

"Ben's a huge Washington Redskins fan, so Anna wrote the football team a letter explaining the situation and requesting tickets to one of their games," he said. Ben, Anna and her parents received free tickets and watched the Redskins beat the Dallas Cowboys in December. Ben also got to meet his favorite player, tight end Chris Cooley, and team owner Dan Snyder.

"This is typical Anna," said Liz. "She is always thinking about other kids. That's really her whole thing."

Tragically, Anna has had her mind on a couple of friends she made when they met during chemotherapy.

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