Kids with leukemia spark hope | Inquirer Business

Kids with leukemia spark hope

TAAL Vista general manager Walid Wafik stands in the middle of Dona Tomes (left) and Remelyn Mandal in front of the hotel’s Christmas tree located in the lobby. EUGENE ARANETA

As their hands tapped the switch, the tall Christmas trees towering over them glimmered, lighting up the faces of spectators as the night slowly envelops the sky.

Dona Tomes, 16, and Remelyn Mandal, 17, were one of the lucky few to have their wishes granted by Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Philippine Daily Inquirer last Nov. 23.


The two teenagers, both diagnosed with leukemia, stood beside the president of SM Hotels and Convention Center Elizabeth Sy and Taal Vista Hotel general manager Walid Wafik. They led the lighting ceremony of the Christmas tree near the hotel’s main entrance.

The executives and the grantees served as beacons of hope as they sparked a festive mood during the event.


In celebration as well of Taal Vista Hotel’s 75th anniversary, the occasion was capped with a buffet dinner. As the guests dined, they are serenaded by the Hail Mary the Queen Children’s choir and saxophonist Vince Lahorra.

Wafik shares how corporate responsibility is crucial in the business: “I always believe in being involved in the community we’re in. Either it’s here or Batangas … we have to be involved.”

Taal Vista Hotel, along with Pico Sands Hotel at Pico De Loro Cove in Nasugbu, Batangas are owned by SM Hotels and Convention Center, a subsidiary of SM Investments Corp. The former provided free accommodations for the families of the grantees.

“The idea to make a wish happen for a kid… that’s fulfilling. I wanted to meet them and see the magic, which was really really nice,” Wafik says. “You know we’re not only out here to just do the daily business thing … we have to serve the people. It’s my pleasure. I will do it again and again.”


He says that he believes in changing things around—that Remelyn and Dona would be able to skip the hurdle in their lives.

The day before the event, Remelyn was watching her favorite TV show from their couch in Pandi, Bulacan; while Dona, who hails from Virac, Catanduanes, was on the street playing badminton.


Dona, who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), wished to go to Tagaytay with her family. She and her mother, Lilia, 60, were on their way back to Manila after a two-week vacation in their hometown when she got a text message from a volunteer of Make-A-Wish Foundation. She jumped for joy when she heard the news.

“I really want to go to a cool, breezy place, and breathe fresh air. The pollution in Manila puts a risk on my health, so I always wear a mask. But if I’m in the countryside, I am at ease and carefree,” Dona explains in Filipino.

“Tagaytay City is also a famous tourist spot that boasts of natural wonders like Taal Volcano,” she says, as her eyes move around, taking in the breathtaking view from the balcony of her suite.

Battling acute myeloid leukemia (AML) for five years, Remelyn’s simple wish was to go on a family trip.

“As long as my family and I are together, everywhere is fine,” Remelyn says.

She was on cloud nine upon receiving the text message from Make-A-Wish Foundation, she says.

As the van that brought the family reaches Tagaytay City, tears rolled down the cheeks of Mercy, a mother of three. She later expressed her thrill on seeing Taal Volcano from a moving vehicle.

This is a rarity for her family since she has no spare money for vacations, making ends meet for Remelyn’s costly medication.

However, the Mandals were short of two family members during Remelyn’s special day out. Her father, Francisco, a construction worker, has work on that day; while her identical twin sister, Recelyn, was helping out at her aunt’s salon in Bulacan.


Recelyn chose not to enroll and study this year for the sake of Remelyn. They were two peas in a pod—the twins who want to do things together.

Remelyn skipped school when she was in first year high school upon learning of her illness in 2008. After two years, she went back to the delight of her classmates and the school’s principal, who was battling breast cancer then.

The school head passed away last year.

But Remelyn, an incoming third year high school student felt like resting for a while, in after five years of chemotherapy.

“I advised her to take a break for a while, to which she agreed, even though her doctor told me to enroll her to school this year,” Mercy, who is a homemaker that owns and manages  a sari-sari store in front of her house, says in Filipino.

“I remember when she gets up early for school, she goes home by noon, complaining of being worn out,” Mercy recalls.

Symptoms of EML include unusual bleeding, joint pains, light-headedness and shortness of breath.

While Remelyn chose to take a break for the remainder of the school year, Dona has been looking forward to attend college again and reunite with her friends.

“I try to explain and tell my friends that my condition stalls my schooling,” Dona says. “But I also tell them to study hard because, when you have an illness like mine, only then will you realize how important education really is.”

Both teeners dream of becoming Math high school teachers. Before Dona was diagnosed with ELL, she was already a first year college student taking up education at Catanduanes State University, where she also plans to work.

“When I learned that I have ELL, I cried hard. I was afraid that I will never get to study again,” Dona recalls.

Lilia is a widow and a full-time mother to ailing Dona.

In the last week of April, Dona felt the symptoms of ELL such as high fever, fatigue, joint pain and gum bleeding.

Superstition prompted the mother to bring Dona to an herb doctor, or albularyo, each month. One day, the extreme pain took its toll on Dona, and she collapsed. Relatives advised Lilia to bring her to Manila immediately as the hospital in Catanduanes does not have a specialist in blood cancer.

Upon setting foot in Manila after a 24-hour ship ride, they rushed the girl to the Philippine Children’s Medical Center in Quezon City.

Lilia has eight children. Except for her fifth son, Joel, Lilia had to leave them all behind in Catanduanes.

Joel is now working at a business process outsourcing firm in Manila.

“The doctor had a word with me and Joel, warning us that we should brace ourselves for the worst,” Lilia says. “I was really scared then. It’s a good thing Dona is a fighter.”

Lilia explains that “once you get past the first six months, you’re going to be okay. I heaved a sigh of relief. Dona is really strong.”

Dona has been told to continue chemotherapy for two years. But Lilia says that the worst for her daughter is over.

The same strength can be seen in Remelyn and her mother Mercy, who has been in the middle of the war between Remelyn and AML.

“We would sleep in the ER (emergency room) or lie atop cartons while we wait for results of Remelyn’s medication,” Mercy says of the struggles and the physical discomfort she had to go through in caring for her daughter.

She also remembers asking for financial aid from almost everyone—from nurses and doctors at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH) to government officials such as those in the Senate and House of Representatives.

“I am really grateful to the good souls at PGH. When I was short of funds, I would borrow money from the nurses. When the doctors noticed that Remelyn was not taking some medicines, they would point me to foundations for help,” Mercy states.

In caring for her child, she says that “if you don’t have the means, you have to be patient. You need to go out of your comfort zone and make things work for you, or else, nothing will happen.”

Despite her aggressive spirit, she was able to build relationships with fellow mothers who were in the same boat as Mercy.

“I would teach them how to be beneficiaries of government funds, such as the Priority Development Assistance Fund, or pork barrel, via the Senate,” says Mercy, who received P5,000 after lobbying at the Senate.

Five years into the battle with EML, Remelyn is on her way to recovery. She now goes to PGH for checkups once or twice a month.

“There are other kids who say chemotherapy is futile,” Mercy says. “But I remind them that only God can speak of hopelessness and death. Even when doctors are pessimistic, I don’t lose hope. There’s always hope.”

Drawing strength

Tough times taught Remelyn to draw strength from her mother, siblings, and from God.

“Through this hardship, I learned to never give up and just pray,” says Remelyn, whose hair has started to grow back.

Her mother never had a doubt. She believes that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

She tries to pass on this hope to others on the verge of losing faith.

“When people look at Remelyn and tilt their heads from side to side, I would try to cover her as much as I could so she would not see them with their hopeless or pitiful look,” Mercy says. “Good things also happen because God is good. When you lose something, you gain something. There are people that will come in your life to lend a hand.”

As other cancer survivors would told Remelyn, “kapit lang (just hold on)!”

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TAGS: Children, Disease, Health, leukemia
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