“I learned about Rebecca’s Gift through a mutual friend who was at the hospital with Olivia,” says Karla Ramirez. Olivia had received treatment at the Lomolinda, California, hospital — and also at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles (CHLA) — over the course of her struggle with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).
Olivia was diagnosed in May 2014 at 6 months of age — when her older sister, Areli, was 6 years-old. In the nineteen months that followed, Areli managed the difficult path familiar to siblings of terminally ill children. Because of the distance to the hospital, Areli stayed home with her grandparents, who lovingly ensured all of her needs were met and routines were kept. Ultimately, after over a year of treatments, recovery, and a devastating relapse, Areli participated in Olivia’s care, donating her own bone marrow. “She was amazing,” says Karla. Taking only one Motrin for pain relief, Areli was able to walk to Olivia’s room post-procedure. “I was in awe of her strength,” says Karla, “I don’t know if I could do that at her age.”
Recounting the surgery, Karla remembers the rollercoaster, which included the joy of being “all four together” for Thanksgiving 2015 and another prolonged separation when two-year-old Olivia relapsed again. As the family came to terms with the absence of further treatment options, the child life team at CHLA worked kindly with Areli — age 7 at the time — explaining what would happen. “Areli got to see Olivia. She wasn’t scared. She held her hand and loved up on her,” says Karla.
Like many young families who lose a child to terminal illness, the Ramirezes realized they had “so much love to still give.” Not wanting Areli to grow up alone, they decided to grow their family. Natalie was born 15 months after Olivia died. Having Natalie does not undo the sorrow, of course. But she does bring a lot of happiness as her own person.
“When our friend nominated us for Rebecca’s Gift, I didn’t think we would be chosen,” says Karla. When Kat reached out to the family, it felt very special. But it was hard to fill out the paperwork — because it was re-opening Olivia’s story. “Kat was wonderful,” says Karla. Through months of contact and mindfulness to keep the paperwork from being a trigger, Kat supported Karla through the application process.
When it came time to plan the trip, Kat asked about Areli’s favorite places. Rebecca’s Gift also arranged to include Karla’s mom — who had helped raise Areli during Olivia’s illness.
Wanting it to be a surprise, Karla did not tell Areli the destination in advance. Areli was “over the moon” just to be chosen. She told Karla, “They’re so nice, Mama. I can’t believe there are people who do this.” Emails with Kat helped build momentum. Then a huge package with Disney themed items for Areli and Natalie arrived as a way to announce the trip. The itinerary arrived via email. Tickets and gift cards arrived, as did a “super cute” backpack with our name, hats, Barbies, and a warm personal note.
Leading up to the trip was an emotional rollercoaster. “I was excited for Areli and Natalie,” says Karla. But she also felt torn about creating beautiful memories that Olivia would never know. “My husband was such a supportive help, keeping the focus on all of us enjoying ourselves.” Karla mentions that “siblings become overshadowed when someone is sick. That’s not what I wanted.” The trip was something that Areli deserved after all she had gone through.
And it was a magical trip. “Seeing Disney through my child’s eyes was amazing and emotional.” Having her mother on the trip also allowed Karla to have some quality one-on-one time with Areli. Rebecca’s Gift had arranged a princess makeover. “Areli was so happy. Seeing her so happy, I just started crying,” says Karla. Watching that joy brought feelings of pride and awe. “The journey she’s been on,” reflects Karla, “She had to grow up so much over the years.”
Looking back on the process, Karla says she was glad she did not let her hesitations get in the way. “I put my kids first,” she affirms.
“I wouldn’t have these memories if not for Rebecca’s Gift.
I will cherish this trip for the rest of my life.”
— Karla Ramirez, California