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West Hartford synagogue hosts a blood drive to honor 6-year-old cancer patient

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – Beth El Temple will hold a Red Cross Blood Drive on Sunday, Jan. 7 in honor of six-year-old Abby Zittoun of Simsbury, who is currently being treated for a brain tumor.

The daughter of Gwen and Dan Zittoun, Abby, a first-grader at Lattimer Lane Elementary School, was diagnosed in early October with esthesioneuroblastoma (ENB), a rare cancer of the nasal cavity.

The Zittouns have been members of Beth El Temple for the past four-and-a-half years. Dan is the principal of Hall High School in West Hartford and Gwen is an attorney at Shipman and Goodwin in Hartford, practicing in the area of school law. In addition to Abby, the Zittouns are the parents of eight-year-old Ella and three-and-a-half-year-old Olivia.

Abby was diagnosed with ENB after she began having issues with her sight.

“She was having some impact on her eye and it appeared to us that she had a lazy eye almost,” Gwen recalled. “So we took her to the ophthalmologist and it turned out that the type of tumor she has essentially grows off the sinus in the sinus cavity…It had grown to put pressure on her optic nerve. That’s how we found it.”

Rabbi Ilana Garber of Beth El suggested to the Zittouns that they host a blood drive in Abby’s honor. It was during Garber’s own battle with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2015 that several friends had begun donating blood regularly.

“When I was sick and I needed to get five transfusions, some of my friends really started to resonate with the idea that while they weren’t directly helping me that they could be helping the world by doing a blood drive and by giving their own blood. So I have friends who five times a year are making that happen for themselves,” Garber told the Ledger.

Beth El Temple hosts a Red Cross blood drive every few months, so this time around, Garber’s friend Rachel Leventhal-Weiner said, “Now we will do this for Abby.”

“Rabbi Garber has been a big support for us through this process,” Gwen Zittoun said. “She has been close with our family since our youngest was born, and she came to us and said, ‘we want to do this.’ I can’t say enough how much support we feel from the community and the fact that Abby is being honored in this way is really wonderful for our family.”

While the Zittouns are touched that Beth El is holding the blood drive, Abby – like any typical first-grader – is very pleased to be honored by the temple.

“First of all, Abby is honored that they are doing this. It makes her feel very special,” Gwen laughed. “She is an amazing kid.”

Besides being a gesture that supports Abby, Beth El’s blood drive is also an effort that can save additional lives.

“We are finding we have such a strong community here in this area between West Hartford and Simsbury. People really want to help our family, which is just so wonderful, and a really huge way people can help is to give blood,” Gwen said. “Many people who are going through cancer treatment need blood and sometimes people don’t know that. We have been told that they are almost sure that at some point Abby is going to need blood whether for surgery or during chemo. You see kids in the hospital all the time who are receiving blood transfusions. That is a really wonderful way people can help Abby’s treatment and anyone who is going through cancer treatment.”

Abby is being treated at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center (CCMC).

“I think the most important part of her treatment has been being at CCMC because they do everything possible and in their power to distract her from what is going on,” Gwen said. “There is a playroom on her floor, there is a clown there all the time. They have volunteers that come and do art projects with the kids twice a week, they have movie carts, treat carts, book carts and toy carts and she gets these beautiful beads for all of the treatments she goes through. She has her own American Girl doll that has no hair like her and she has been doing medical play. CCMC’s Child Life Specialists are incredible; the nurses are incredible. And that has been a huge piece in her treatment.”

Abby must go through at least four cycles of chemotherapy. She just finished her third chemo treatment.

“A cycle is three weeks long, so she has chemo for four days in-patient, then we are home for two weeks and then we go back again.”

Gwen said that the chemo is working.

“Abby had an MRI two weeks ago and we are seeing positive results,” she said.

“Her vision was impacted but it has returned back to normal.”

What happens next depends on what happens after chemotherapy is completed. Surgery is a possibility, Gwen said. In the meantime, Abby continues to attend school when she is home.

“She is on kind of a limited plan and she goes when she can tolerate it, but we get her there as much as we can,” Gwen said. “That is an important piece for her – to keep her socialization and her friends. The school has been unbelievable.”

On Dec. 8, all of the West Hartford public schools, including Hall High School celebrated the 7th annual “PJ Day for the Kids,” where students, teachers and administrators wear pajamas to school in exchange for a donation to the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center’s Hematology/Oncology Fund.

Students at Latimer Lane also participated in the special event in support of Abby this year.

“The turnout was amazing for such a small school,” Gwen said. “Her teacher is amazing, her principal, all of the support staff – there are no words to describe it.”

“They are such a good family, they are so sweet and the have these three precious daughters,” Rabbi Garber said about the Zittouns. “Abby is an incredible little girl with a great support system…But she is six years old, she is in first grade. I have a first-grader – she is just like all of our kids. So that hits close to home for all of us.”

Garber encourages the community to participate in in the blood drive, either by giving blood or, if that isn’t possible, by volunteering to help with registratration and snacks.

By turning out for the blood drive on Jan. 7, participants can be members of “Abby’s Army,” and “Treat It, Beat It!” – the battle cry of Abby’s team of supporters.

“It feels like this really beautiful thing to do,” Rabbi Garber said.

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