You wouldn’t know from just meeting her, but Dana Al-Askari Alami is a woman who has experienced tremendous loss and has worked tirelessly to overcome it. An Iraqi who grew up in London, Dana has been living in Dubai for the past 23 years. She had 3 children, and life was seemingly wonderful. Until her daughter was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer, called Rhabdomyosarcoma, which typically affects children in the connective tissue.
At first, Dana took her daughter, Dania Alami, to a pediatrician for an earache. Dr Aymen Freihat was the first person who noticed something was off, and strongly advised that Dana take Dania to specialists abroad. Dana recalls that he was very vague, but that he seemed alarmed and knew something had to be done.
They went to a specialist in the UK named Dr Ghassan Alussi and had an MRI and biopsy done. Dania was officially diagnosed with RMS when she was 9 years old. After the diagnosis, Dana moved herself and her daughter to New York so that Dania could have the best treatment for RMS under the care of Dr Leonard Wexler. She underwent 12 months of intensive chemotherapy and 30 days of radiation to get the best care possible. Due to the rarity of the disease, Dania’s treatment was a trial treatment, and doctors alerted Dana that there was a 1% chance her daughter would develop chemotherapy-induced leukemia. After the chemotherapy had ended, Dania lived in remission for almost 10 months. Dana recalls Dania moving back to Dubai, being playful, seemingly happy and healthy again, returning to Dubai to attend school like any other 11 year old.
However, things took a turn for the worst when Dania was due for her third monthly check-up in NY on March 2010. She fell into the 1% of the children who developed chemotherapy-induced leukaemia. The board in the hospital in MSKCC decided that the only chance Dania had was to undergo a bone marrow transplant.
Prior to the transplant, Dania underwent intensive chemotherapy. Although Dania’s primary doctor warned against the transplant, he was trumped due to the board who said it was the best option for survival and elected for it to be done. It so happened that Dania’s eldest son was a perfect match, so he donated his bone marrow for his sister.
After the transplant was over, which was a success, Dania had accepted her brother’s bone marrow and her counts were up. Until a month later when her body began to deteriorate and her liver stopped functioning due to the immense toxic chemotherapy she had been exposed to during her primary cancer. Her liver just couldn’t handle it, hence developing Veno Occlusive disease. She passed away just one month after the transplant, a week before her 13th birthday to the day.
Dana was devastated. She and her family had been so hopeful that the bone marrow transplant would be the solution, and that Dania could go back to living life as a healthy, happy young teenager, but the cancer had other plans. Dana went back to the Emirates, and decided she had to do something. She was inspired by Frank’s cart inside Memorial Sloan Kettering that came every evening to pass around candy to children within the oncology ward. She said that all the activities, programs, music jams, clown acts and visits at the hospital made things much more bearable for the children there, so she started her very own “Dania’s Cart”, where she would go around with toys to brighten up the days of the children in the Dubai Hospital. Permits made it difficult for Dana to continue with her self-funded toy cart. Dana did not give up there – she persevered to do something to brighten the lives of those facing similar experiences and she wouldn’t take NO for an answer.
In September 2014, Dana joined Al-Jalila Foundation and created a website called Omniyat Dania, named after her daughter. Together, they have raised over 130,000 dirhams, which Dana intends to donate to families who do not have the financial means to afford care for their sick children’s treatment.
Dana knows that the pain of losing your child will never completely heal, but through altruistic actions, striving to make changes and improvements for other families going through similar traumas, and therapy, Dana learns to live on. She also stresses the importance of seeking professional help, both after loss and during the process of treatment for your sick children, as it will help you cope and understand what your child is going through. Though her daughter was very strong throughout her intensive chemotherapy, it was not an easy time for anyone, and without therapy, Dana says it would have been nearly impossible. “Loss is something you never really move on from. You can learn to live with it, and to do things that might make life just a little bit better for those around you that are also struggling with sickness, loss or health issues,” she adds.
Read more stories about finding strength in times of loss and challenge on Challenge 2 Change.