On World Cancer Day, the story of one beloved Upper West Side family who faced their daughter's leukemia with help from their community
Two-year-old Leah Golkin is advanced for her age. She knows her ABCs, her shapes, and her colors, all of which she learned while in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy.
Leah, who also has a form of Down's Syndrome called Trisomy 21, was diagnosed with AML leukemia in April of last year.
"As a mother, the hardest thing was seeing her suffer. I haven't slept through the night once in the past ten months," said Susan Golkin, who quit her job immediately after Leah's diagnoses. "Just the word cancer is enough to make you want to dig a hole and never come out."
Leah had always enjoyed tumbling around in Elliot's Gymnastics class at the Jewish Center on West 86th Street and dancing with mom during her Musical Tots class at the New York Kids Club. Back at home, she loved playing in her toy kitchen; in the hospital, she loved listening to her mother read her favorite book, Let's Be Thankful.
Always active in the community, Susan had led the youth department at the Jewish Center before Leah got sick, and was the kind of neighbor who brought everyone apples for Rosh Hashanah after the family went apple picking.
In turn, over the past ten months, neighbors have shown up for Susan and her husband Moshe in droves, bringing them homemade food almost every single day. Because the family is Jewish Orthodox, they can only eat Kosher, a hard diet to manage when you're in the hospital all day and your husband is at work.
"It was beyond incredible. We didn't feel alone through any of this," said Susan, who rarely left Leah's side.
Susan's friend and neighbor, Sharon Herzfeld, says that because the Golkins are the kind of people who have always been there for everyone in the community, people rose to the occasion without a moment's hesitation.
"One of the remarkable effects of Leah being so terribly sick is that many people became involved in trying to support them," she said. Sharon's two children also visited Leah in the hospital, bringing gifts that they made especially for her.
"So many of our neighbors checked in on us all the time," Susan said. "One of our neighbors is a pediatrician and was always there to answer our questions. In some cases, we'd come home from the hospital and there would be presents for Leah, or food, or body lotion for me as a gift to treat myself."
The Golkins also received much needed financial and emotional support from two New York based non-profit organizations Friends of Karen and Chai Lifeline, both dedicated to helping the families of children facing terminal illness.
"They didn't qualify for Supplemental Security Income, which creates a huge struggle for many middle-class families," said Sarah Coakley, the family's social worker from Friends of Karen. The Golkin's situation, she says, is not uncommon.
"It's a challenge for these families to ask for help. In Susan's case, she was always the one giving help, and didn't know how to ask for it."
Friends of Karen helped foot the cost of the transportation to and from Leah's many treatments and helped pay some of their medical bills, and Sarah always came prepared with new toys and books for Leah.
"Leah is an amazing little kid," said Sarah. "When she knew that her mom was upset, she'd do something goofy and it would make her smile. She's very smart."
Chai Lifeline also lent a hand, helping them celebrate the Sabbath every week in the hospital by bringing candles, tablecloths, and food.
"Leah especially loved when our volunteers came to play with her," said Raizy Goldberger, Associate Program Director at Chai Lifeline and the family's case manager at Cornell Hospital. "Leah won us all over. She smiles and blows you a kiss and that's it. She wins your heart."
Last week, after nearly a year full of chemotherapy and six surgeries, Susan found out that Leah's cancer is now in full remission. In the fall, Susan plans on sending Leah to preschool at the Chabad on West 97th Street so she can continue her stellar learning career. Of the future, Susan says, she is trying to be hopeful.
"I can't live my life thinking, 'What if the cancer comes back?'" Susan said. "You may think of all the worst things, but if you have faith, and I don't care what faith you are, if you just believe in something bigger than yourself, you know that God has a plan, and it's going to be okay."