The writer at the bone marrow transplant ward at Ichilov Hospital in Israel. (photo from Ariella Stein)
Fashion is one of my many passions, as regular readers of the Jewish Independent will know by now. So, when I turned 50 this year, a milestone birthday, I decided to pursue a longtime dream – to create a fashion tract for bone marrow transplant survivors.
When I was 17 years old, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. At the time, I was in Grade 12, studying in Israel. My parents’ first reaction was for me to return to Vancouver, where they felt I should start my treatments. There was no time to waste, as it was at an aggressive stage. However, after much persuasion, I convinced my parents that I should stay in Israel. As part of the deal I made with them, I was to head back to Vancouver upon graduation and resume the next cycle of treatments.
I started chemotherapy. I had the most loving care from the staff at Tel Hashomer Hospital. I was on the road to recovery when I returned home.
After a few more bouts with chemo and some courses in radiation, however, we were given the devastating news that I had to undergo an autologous bone marrow transplant. The procedure had to start immediately. I lost the little hair I had left in just one day, couldn’t hold down any food or drink, and was separated from any ounce of humanity because I had no immunity. But I was getting better, thanks to the staff and doctors at the British Columbia Cancer Agency.
During the horrifying three-month stay in my isolated hospital room I was, paradoxically, injected with the poisonous chemo cocktail expected to cure me and the benevolent rays of light and love of my family. The support made me stronger and gave me courage. I had so much to look forward to. My two older sisters had countless discussions on having children for me if I couldn’t conceive, my father tried to grant me not just one star but the whole galaxy, my mother never left my side and my then-boyfriend-now-husband showered me with tenderness. The love in my room spread throughout the ward. Through the tears, we remembered to laugh and dream.
When it was time to go home, I was nervous about leaving my protected environment but full of excitement to start my new life. All I wanted was to feel and look healthy again. I bade farewell to my dull uniform of pajamas and welcomed my new outfit, especially chosen for me. On the door, it was waiting for me, as if knowing how I was craving to look like a girl again. I fondly remember stepping out in my blue leather mini skirt, black cashmere sweater and black knee-high boots, handpicked with care by my mom, a true fashionista. I looked fabulous and felt euphoric on the 10-minute ride home, the only place I was headed for the time being.
Fast forward some 30 years, and I am the mother of two miraculous children, Daniel and Natalie, who bring me the greatest happiness and naches, spoken like a true Yiddishe Mame. I am grateful every day for my blessed life. There have been bumps along my journey, of course. I have often wondered if other women had the transformational experience I did leaving the ward. I knew the day would come for me to help other survivors in my own way. Splitting my time between Israel and Canada, I chose to initiate a fashion project in Israel.
I reached out to the head of the bone marrow transplant unit in Ichilov Hospital (Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Centre) and, to my astonishment, within minutes was told they were on board. My dream was becoming a reality.
My mission is to offer patients, upon their release, an outfit of their wishes to raise their spirit, as my mother’s fashion choices had raised mine. I wrote letters to as many clothing stores as I could, looking to find sponsors, hoping they would donate new outfits to recipients. I received a few replies saying nice idea, good luck; some never replied. But some did reply with open hearts, willing to contribute to the project.
Getting started has been challenging, one step forward and a few back. Frustrating as it is, I understand that it will take time but, among the obstacles, I will not give up. As the writer Paulo Coelho said, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” I have named my project Lalas Wings. Lala is a nickname, dubbed by my niece and nephew 35 years ago.
I was taught to dream big by my mentor, my father, Karl Stein. Hopefully, by sharing my dream, I can make a significant contribution to many bone marrow transplant patients, starting in Israel and eventually reaching hospitals in more and more places. My experience leads me to believe that the seemingly externally focused gift of clothing is part of a perfect beginning to the complex healing process.
If anyone has any questions about Lalas Wings, I can be reached by email at [email protected].
Ariella Stein is a mother, wife and fashion maven. A Vancouverite, she has lived in both Turkey and Israel for the past 25 years.