Shaving for children battling cancer

Dr. David Jacobsohn gets his head shaved at Congregation Beth El to show his support for children fighting cancer.Photo by Carly Glazier
Dr. David Jacobsohn gets his head shaved at Congregation Beth El to show his support for children fighting cancer.
Photo by Carly Glazier

Thirty people went under the razor, losing their locks in a show of support for children fighting cancer at the third Be Brave and Shave event at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda.

The fundraiser was held to raise awareness about pediatric cancer and bone marrow transplants, as well as to raise money for a long-term study and program at the Children’s National Health System in Washington. The goal is to follow childhood pediatric cancer survivors as they grow up, tracking medical and intellectual problems they experience as a result of their cancer treatments.

More than $100,000 was raised during the Oct. 18 event. The money will be used in part to educate patients and families about what to expect after a transplant, said Dr. David Jacobsohn, chief of the bone marrow transplant program at Children’s.

Children who undergo bone marrow transplants may experience learning disorders, ADHD, high blood pressure or high cholesterol, said Dr. Jacobsohn. The study will document such effects, but it will also look at patients’ bone density and, for females, any reproductive issues.

The fundraiser has roots in a fortuitous meeting between Dr. Jacobsohn and a Beth El congregant, David Rifkind. About four years ago, Rifkind met his new neighbor, Dr. Jacobsohn. “He had me over for a drink,” Rifkind said.

As the two men spoke, Rifkind learned of Dr. Jacobsohn’s work. He recalled his brother’s bone marrow transplant. “I was very aware of the danger, and how hard it was on the family,” Rifkind said.

Then they were planning a fundraiser to be held at the synagogue. Rikfind’s mother was enduring a round of chemotherapy at the time, so “I kind of figured losing my hair was no big thing.”

The first Be Brave and Shave event was held at Beth El in March 2011; it raised about $250,000, Rifkind said. The second one, in 2013, raised closed to $175,000.

The fundraiser has become a family event, with parents and children agreeing to have their heads shaved together. The children want to join in when they “see their parents doing something meaningful,” said Rifkind. “It really does help demonstrate for our kids in a very tangible way tikkun olam.”

Rifkind’s son, Ethan, was 11 when he accompanied his father to the dedication of an outpatient facility at Children’s. It was then that Rifkind realized how far-reaching the effects of that first conversation with Dr. Jacobsohn had become.

At the dedication, Ethan told the audience, “’My father is a bigger hero to me than any DC or Marvel comic book hero,’” Rifkind recalled.

Dr. Jacobsohn said the event is inspirational, and pointed to the crowd at Beth El who came to help or to observe.

Tom Davis, whose daughter Sydney, had a bone marrow transplant when she was in eighth grade, never heard of Beth El, but now is appreciative of the congregation there.

His daughter underwent treatments for an acute form of leukemia before receiving a bone marrow transplant from her younger sister.

Davis was anxious to help out at last Sunday’s event, saying that he has a great deal of admiration for Dr. Jacobsohn and his medical team. He also lauded the goal of studying the long-term effects of radiation exposure as part of bone marrow transplants.

“As a father,” said Davis, “I am concerned what will happen next.”

Also speaking at the event was Abdulrahman Al-Jabir, an 8-year-old boy from Qatar, who is undergoing treatments for his cancer at Children’s.

Children’s National Health System has performed more than 900 blood and marrow transplants since 1988.

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