If someone asks 5-year-old Harel Dabouch why he came to Philadelphia from Israel, he’ll explain that it was to get the bad monsters out of him. But his father said his son knows there’s something seriously wrong.
The monsters are tumors that have grown all over his body, invading his bones and spine and putting pressure on his lungs, affecting his breathing.
Harel cracks a shy smile and plays games on an iPad the way any kindergartener would. But he isn’t in kindergarten and hasn’t been with other children his age in school for more than two years. That was when the toddler started limping and told his parents that his legs hurt.
The family drove from their home in Beersheva north to Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel in Petach Tikvah, where oncologists diagnosed him with neuroblastoma, a cancer that starts in the nerve tissues of infants and children. Doctors said that he had the “highest risk” variety of the disease.
When his father, Shai, saw scans of the body laden with cancerous growths, he said, “it was like my world came crashing down on me.”
In early February, the father and son flew to the United States to see the leading experts in the disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
They are here because eight rounds of chemotherapy in Israel often made Harel feel worse, then better for a time, and then failed to remove the cancer from his bones. A doctor at a private clinic in Israel recommended that they come to Philadelphia, where doctors use a treatment that attacks a mutation in the gene responsible for the disease.
They are here because of strangers who heard about the child’s painful life. Donors from around Israel helped raise $250,000 for the treatment, a figure that still only represents less than half of what the treatment and stay in the United States is expected to cost. Donations for Harel's treatment can be made at Indiegogo.com/projects/save-harel .
An Israeli couple in Cherry Hill, N.J., saw a story from Israeli television about the family’s plan to come here, contacted the father and said, “You’re staying with us.”
Dabouch’s pregnant wife, Avigail, and oldest daughter did not make the trip, and last week the mother gave birth to a girl. The father and son have only seen the baby through Skype, but the three family members will soon be coming to Philadelphia. The Israelis could be here for at least a year while Harel undergoes treatment.
There are no guarantees that the treatment will work. Dabouch said the disease is relatively rare and this treatment is still being developed, so the doctors have few children to compare Harel to. But physicians have told them that children who have received the treatment are doing better.
On Tuesday, officials of the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia took Harel, Shai and a volunteer from Leoshit Yad, an Israeli organization that helps children suffering from cancer and their families, out for a day of fun that included a stop at the Please Touch Museum.
Harel started playing with an exhibit on rockets and began to make a siren sound, imitating the warning when rockets from Gaza fly into Beersheva. But he was still smiling.