Dicken student Mariel Almendras, 8, dies on Thanksgiving after long battle with rare ovarian cancer
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It was a short conversation, but the chatty 8-year-old with the radiant smile captured his heart last summer in a way that he'll never forget.
From that day in late August, the Groundcover newspaper vendor who goes by Tony S. has written "Pray for Mariel" on every paper he sells, typically from the corner of Liberty and Main streets.
Mariel Almendras was downtown that day with members of the Michigan Ovarian Cancer Alliance, tying teal ribbons around town to promote cancer awareness. She stopped to talk with Tony, and shared her story of suffering from a rare form of ovarian cancer. "She just shined, she was so special," Tony said, after learning Mariel passed away on Thanksgiving. "She was the inspiration that kept me going because I wanted to keep putting out the paper with her name on it. She's part of my corner now."
That's how Mariel Almendras lived her short life — making new friends everywhere she went, no matter how young or old. Touching people's lives in a way they didn't soon forget.
I'm among those who called Mariel a friend. For two years, I was her "Daisy mom," as she participated in the Girl Scouts troop I led at Dicken Elementary School. I feel fortunate to have been on the receiving end of those smiles, those hugs and that endless chatter.
Her family, our school community and countless others are now in mourning for Mariel, who died of complications related to the cancer. But despite the sadness, there is much to be celebrated about a life lived with such passion and faith, a life that brought so many others together.
The roller coaster
Mariel was born in Cebu City in the Philippines, the daughter of Sean and Emmeline, or Gemma, both physicians. When Mariel was two, Sean, who was born in the United States, was offered the opportunity to emigrate with his family to the U.S. Envisioning more opportunities for Mariel and her older siblings — sister, Ella, and brother, Gean — Sean and Gemma made the move.
Neither practices medicine currently. Sean works for the Medical Center Information Technology team at the University of Michigan Health System. Gemma, who worked as a lunch supervisor at Dicken for a couple of years, has made several starts at studying for the medical boards. But her priority has been caring for Mariel and her siblings.
In August 2009, Mariel was first found to have a rare Sertoli-Leydig cell tumor the size of a small cantaloupe on one of her ovaries. Doctors at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital removed the tumor that month, and she received several rounds of chemotherapy.
In January she returned to school, and remained in remission for all of 2010. My colleague wrote a story about Mariel delivering holiday cards and gifts to children at Mott that December.
"Her surgeon gave us a very good prognosis, even talked about us sending her graduation or wedding pictures someday," Gemma said as she, Sean and I talked at a local coffeeshop on Saturday. "We thought it was God's answer to all our prayers, and we were making plans for her future once again."
The family spent most of July and August as a family should: going swimming, visiting Cedar Pointe, and spending time with friends.
After Labor Day, Mariel attended the first day of school and came home exhausted. That night she woke with unbearable abdominal pain, and was admitted to the ICU at Mott. The tumor had returned, and she was bleeding internally. Her doctors said she might not make it, and calls for prayer went out.
A day later, the bleeding stopped, and she was able to leave the ICU. Her body wasn’t stable enough for surgery, so she was to undergo radiation treatments to control the mass. If and when the tumor shrunk, the plan was to take her back to Texas for surgery.
That opportunity never came, because despite the radiation, the tumors continued to grow and multiply. She spent October and November in and out of the hospital, before being admitted for the final time the night before Thanksgiving.
A scan that night revealed that the tumors had taken over most of her vital organs.
“I don’t even know how she held on,” Gemma said. “She would smile and crack jokes, but I don’t know how she endured this for three weeks.”
Throughout the roller coaster of the past two years, the Almendras family has found strength and inspiration in their Catholic faith — Mariel as much as anyone. But in those last few weeks, Gemma saw Mariel’s faith shaken for the first time, as she questioned the unfairness of it all.
Gemma said her faith remains strong, but she wants to know why all the prayers didn’t lead to healing.
“I believed with all my heart that she would get better, and I told God when she gets better, I will bring her wherever — to the ends of the Earth — to fulfill his mission for her,” Gemma said. “I just want an explanation why God did not answer my prayer that she be physically healed, why he did not let her enjoy the life that he gave her.”
When Mariel’s cancer returned, her aunt, Portia Almendras, set up a website called Mariel's Angels to update the community on her progress and organize those who wanted to help.
Jen Eyer | AnnArbor.com
Before Mariel’s surgery in Texas, people from her various support communities — including MCIT, Dicken and Slauson schools, Mott, and St. Francis of Assisi church — came together at Dicken for a fund-raiser. Mariel, who was in Texas for pre-op tests, was Skyped into the event on a big screen.
Throughout the winter and spring of 2011, her second-grade teacher, Cathy Cieglo, visited her several times a week, helping with lessons, teaching her to quilt, and just talking about life.
“We didn't have the teacher-student relationship after awhile, we were friends,” Cieglo said. “It sounds funny to say, but she had this wit, she'd catch things so quickly and come back so quickly, you'd talk to her like you talk to your adult children or your friends.”
Many in the Dicken community won’t soon forget the image of Cieglo on the last day of school, holding her laptop high like John Cusack in the movie “Say Anything,” so Mariel and Gemma could watch via Skype as older sister Ella was “clapped out” along with the rest of the fifth-graders.
Sometimes the help came from surprising corners. A neighbor who they didn't know very well showed up one day and started mowing their lawn. He did it every week after that, and raked the leaves, too.
This fall, another neighbor granted Mariel’s wish to get a puppy. Mariel named him Pickles, and the neighbor, who took care of the little schnoodle for the family, would bring him to visit her in the hospital.
But a few weeks later, Pickles had a freak accident, and died soon after undergoing brain surgery. No one told Mariel — until the very end. As she was dying, Sean told her to look for Pickles in Heaven.
“Pickles led the way,” Sean said. “They were meant to be together.”
Mature beyond her years
Photo courtesy of Caroline Sutton
Other parents have echoed that sentiment in recent days. How else do you describe a child who sings in the school talent show despite having lost her hair from chemotherapy? Who knows more adults in the neighborhood than her parents, because she chats with everyone she passes by? Who routinely corrects and encourages her older siblings? Who leads the family in prayer? Who consoles her father, even as she is suffering?
“I remember as she was vomiting one day, she looked up at me and said, ‘Please don’t cry, Daddy. Jesus is going to heal me and we’ll go home and play baseball,’” Sean recalled, sobbing. “Oh baby, I miss you so much.”
The stories of Mariel’s faith and generosity, posted on the “Angels” website, set off prayer chains that reached far beyond Ann Arbor. Gemma said they have received messages from people across the United States and as far as Israel and Australia, from people of many different faiths, who heard about Mariel and were inspired to pray for her.
For some, it was the first time they had prayed in years.
“It’s painful, but so uplifting to know she’s moved so many lives,” Gemma said. “Her suffering wasn’t worthless if someone’s soul was saved. Maybe this was the ends of the Earth I was talking about.”
As we neared the end of our conversation, a woman who had been sitting at a nearby table walked over.
“I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help hearing,” she said, clearly overcome with emotion. “I wanted to know if there is anything I can do.”
Another life touched.
Visitations will be held at Nie Funeral Home, 3767 W. Liberty Road in Ann Arbor, at the following times: Dec. 1, from 2 to 9 p.m., and Dec. 2 from 2 to 9 p.m., with a scripture service at 6 p.m. After the service, people will have the opportunity to say something about Mariel.
There will also be a visitation Dec. 3 at noon at St. Francis of Assissi church, 2250 East Stadium Blvd. in Ann Arbor, preceding the 1 p.m. funeral at the church.
Update June 17, 2013: A fund in Mariel's name has been discontinued. The family encourages those who wish to support ovarian cancer research to consider donating to MIOCA.org.
Jen Eyer is director of audience engagement for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at email@example.com or 734.623.2577.