When Alique Topalian was 4 years old, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a rare cancer in children that is very aggressive. At four year’s old, a child doesn’t really understand how serious this situation is but for a parent the news is devastating. Alique’s mom, Michele Seyranian, remembers feeling so many emotions including fear and desperation. Her overriding thought at the time was finding a way to save her child’s life.
Alique spent 9 months in the hospital with periodic breaks where she could come home for a weekend. The first six weeks of Alique’s hospital stay, Michele rarely left her side. “But I knew I needed to talk to someone to help me cope with what was going on”, Michele says. “I also needed to find resources to help my daughter. I wanted to find the top physician in the country for treating AML.” Michele recounts that a friend told her about The Gathering Place (TGP) which had just opened its doors. She met with TGP’s medical librarian who helped her find the top AML physician who was working in Seattle Washington at Fred Hutchinson. Michele remembers boarding a plane and flying out to meet with the doctor who agreed to consult with Alique’s physicians at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital.
Michele also utilized TGP to help her cope with the unbearable guilt that she remembers feeling at the time. “TGP helped me and other parents realize that our children’s cancer wasn’t our fault. They also helped me realize that whatever I felt or did, it was ok,” says Michele. “I encouraged other parents to start utilizing TGP and we formed a group that began to meet there on a regular basis to provide support to each other.”
Michele felt very grateful for the support TGP provided and decided it was important to give back and help ensure that others would be able to have the type of help she and Alique received. She joined the Board of Directors at TGP and is currently serving her second term. Michele has chaired the development committee for a number of years and served as the co-chair for TGP’s most successful fund raising event that was held in October 2013 and raised over $450,000. Alique and Michele love participating in Race for the Place, the 5k and 1 mile walk and run held annually on National Cancer Survivors Day to support TGP. Alique says it’s her favorite TGP event. They both laugh as they share a story about wearing their Race for the Place t-shirts while traveling through Thailand a couple of years ago. Alique says, “I remember when the race was so small. This past summer I turned around and saw all those purple shirts; later that day when we were out we saw the t-shirts everywhere. It’s great to see how the race has grown.”
Even though Alique doesn’t remember a lot from the nine months in the hospital she has a vivid memory of what it was like to be a child in school dealing with the aftermath of a cancer diagnosis. She remembers her Mom bringing her to TGP. “I felt like I wasn’t a kid anymore. Talking with a counselor helped me learn that what I was feeling was normal.” When you look at Alique now, a vibrant, smiling 21 year old young woman, it’s hard to imagine what she went through as a child. It wasn’t just the cancer that had an impact, there were challenging treatment side effects as well. Alique lost her right eye and now wears an artificial one. She had to deal with cognitive disabilities that made learning and school work challenging. “At my high school graduation I looked around at all the people graduating with honors and thought I wish I could do that.” Alique has worked hard to overcome those challenges and will graduate cum laude from Ohio University in May.
Alique has many connections to TGP. In 2006, her portrait was taken for a special photography exhibit at TGP titled Cancer Speaks. She also spent time volunteering at TGP for her high school senior project. This past summer she worked on a research project studying the impact of TGP’s programs on helping children cope with a family member’s cancer. This is great preparation for the work she wants to do as a clinical psychologist in the field of oncology. “I believe I would connect to my patients on a very different level,” says Alique. She notes that TGP also supported her when important people in her life were diagnosed with cancer. “When my uncle was diagnosed, the staff helped me understand I couldn’t fix it but that I would be ok. Eileen Coan, the librarian, helped me research information for my uncle and the registered dietitian Beth Bennett helped us figure out what foods he could eat. I encouraged my aunt and cousins to come in so they could get help too. A year later, when my best friend died from cancer, I turned here for help again.”
Michele shares how proud she is of TGP. “I’ve seen TGP expand programs, move into three new facilities, incorporate outdoor programming and greatly enhance the nutrition and exercise programs. We’ve done more outreach in other communities so that we are addressing the unique needs of people of other ethnicity. It’s been pretty amazing.”
Michele’s eyes mist over and there is a small catch in her voice. She shares, “I’ll be sad when my board term ends. It’s going to be emotional and painful to step away. TGP has changed the community. It’s a resource you can’t find anyplace else. It has also given me tools to help understand the psyche of what people need. This is helping in my work at Hospice of The Western Reserve. I am grateful!”