Wherever Mahwah couple Stephen and Samantha Rasmussen look, they say they see signs of hope.
An army of supporters around town wearing orange ‘Pray for Ava’ bracelets, Get Well cards throughout their house and a signed ‘Welcome Home Ava’ banner hanging in the hallway, are all reminders that the Rasmussen family is not alone, they say.
The couple’s seven-year-old daughter, Ava, was diagnosed with Leukemia on November 1. Since then, the family says it has experienced a whirlwind that it may not have been able to handle if not for the love and comfort its receiving everyday from the Mahwah community.
“She woke up with her gums bleeding, and her mouth full of blood,” Ava’s mom, Samantha, said of why she took the second grader to the emergency room last month. “I knew there was something really, really wrong.”
The bleeding had been preceded by a series of headaches and nosebleeds, belly pain and “in mid-October she threw her back out. Seven-year-olds don’t throw their backs out,” Samantha said.
The couple received news of their daughter’s diagnosis at Hackensack University Medical Center.
“You feel so trapped, all you want to do is get out of there, and the room feels so small,” Samantha said.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” dad, Stephen, said.
Over the past month and a half, Ava has undergone a series of treatments at HUMC. She was in and out of the hospital until after Thanksgiving, suffered typhlitis, a bacterial infection in the intestines, and was rushed to the ICU when non-stop nose bleeds caused her to lose about four pints of blood.
Now back home, and being treated at the hospital’s clinic one to three times a week, Ava is finishing the rest of her second grade year as a home-schooled student. She’s lost most of her hair and is wearing a wig, and treatments have caused her cheeks to become puffy and dark circles to form under her eyes.
But, that’s not what the Rasmussen family is focused on.
“We want to stay positive,” Samantha said. “At the end of the day, this isn’t happening to me or my husband, this is happening to my kid. And, we need to be the strongest people we can possibly be so that she’s not scared.”
And since Ava’s diagnosis, Samantha says the community has supported their positive attitude.
“We have literally been overwhelmed by the generosity of this community,” she said. The family has had parents of kids on Ava’s cheer squad who cook meals for them several times a week, local churches have added Ava to their prayer lists, and friends on Facebook have sent words of encouragement.
“I’ve had complete strangers reach out to me on Facebook asking if they can donate bone marrow,” Samantha said. “The outpouring of support on Facebook has just been amazing.”
And last month, a friend of the family’s high school-aged son crafted ‘Pray for Ava’ bracelets to sell as a fundraiser.
Order after order of the bracelets has sold out, and every student at Ava’s school, Betsy Ross, has one. Students throughout the other Mahwah elementary schools are getting ‘Pray for Ava’ bracelets to show their support.
So far, the bracelets have raised over $2,000 for Ava.
“It’s so amazing and so humbling,” Samantha said. “I just don’t know how I’ll ever be able to thank everyone and give back to them for all they have done for us.”
Samantha and Stephen, who both grew up in Mahwah, say they are indebted to the community for helping them, their daughter, and their two sons, five-year-old Damian and one-year-old Dominic, deal with the realities they are facing everyday.
“This is literally the only town in Bergen County where you have every kind of person – every race, color, creed, religion, and culture under the sun – and none of it matters. We all come together and we’re all here for each other,” Samantha said. “It shows me the generosity and kindness of the human spirit, and helps me know that everything is going to be okay.”
Her parents say the constant encouragement has been helping Ava live with, and survive Leukemia.
“She’s been amazing through all of this,” Stephen said. “My daughter amazes me everyday.”
Locals interested in buying "Pray for Ava bracelets can email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.