The halls of an elementary school in San Diego were covered in gold Friday as students showed their support for a resilient fellow classmate who has been cancer-free for three years after a bone marrow transplant from her little brother.
Gold balloons and signs raising awareness for childhood cancer draped every corner of Park Village Elementary School in Rancho Penasquitos to highlight the need for more funding for pediatric cancer research.
On Mother’s Day 2013, at the age of just 5, Rina was diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia – Acute Lymphoblast Leukemia, Philadelphia Chromosome.
Her mother, Marianne Sy, said the family immediately began exploring bone marrow transplant options for Rina’s treatment, checking the compatibility of loved ones. Chances were slim, Sy said – a one in four chance that someone would be Rina’s match.
The answer was right before their eyes: Rina’s little brother, Patrick, turned out to be her perfect bone marrow match.
Marianne said Patrick was only three years old at the time. To explain the magnitude of the situation to the boy in a manner that he could fully grasp, Marianne and her husband used an analogy involving the popular mobile games “Angry Birds” and “Bad Piggies.”
The Sys told their son that Rina had Bad Piggies in her body and he had Angry Birds in his body that could fight the bad guys.
“[We told him] we have to figure out how to take those Angry Birds from your body and put them into your sister’s body so they can have a battle with the Bad Piggies. And we don’t know who’s going to win, but we pray the Angry Birds are going to win,” Marianne recalled.
The process was long and complicated.
The Sy family spent 18 months at Rady Children’s Hospital. Rina underwent five rounds of chemotherapy, six rounds of radiation and 23 blood transfusions.
Patrick was hospitalized, too, and Marianne said doctors extracted 10 ounces of liquid marrow from his tiny body to transplant into Rina’s body.
The transplant worked.
“We are three years cancer-free today,” Marianne told NBC 7 on Friday, beaming in her gold attire at Park Village Elementary School.
Today, Rina is in 3rd grade and Patrick in 1st grade.
The Sy family continues to share their story and to champion increased funding for pediatric cancer research, giving back to Rady Children’s Hospital in any way possible – the place they called home for so many months.
Park Village Elementary School stands behind them. Friday marked the second year the school has “gone gold” in September for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
Marianne said her family is deeply touched by the support – especially from the students themselves.
“The kids have become advocates, which is just my dream,” she told NBC 7. “These kids are hopefully going to be doctors and scientists and researchers someday but today, they’re advocates. They’re rooting for their other classmates who are fighting cancer and beating it.”
The school has been collecting donations to benefit cancer research for Rady Children’s Hospital in gold boxes placed in classrooms and through fundraising events like bake sales.
Tanya Iraca, of Rady Children’s, said the hospital continues to be inspired by Rina’s story and grateful for the family’s philanthropic efforts as advocates in the fight against childhood cancer.
“The family knows the only way to eradicate pediatric cancer is through research,” said Iraca. “They give back in any way they can – sharing their story and hosting fundraisers like this.”
Iraca said Rady Children’s Hospital diagnosed 290 young patients with cancer last year.
Doctors want to see those numbers go down and Iraca said best way to make progress is to fund more research and obtain the best possible tools to win the fight.
To learn more about Rina’s story and how you can donate to her family’s fundraising mission, visit the Resilient Rina blog.