Mom wants memory of daughter to live on
By Michael Stetz Union-Tribune Columnist
Isabella was four years old and called the big scar on the back of her neck an “owie.”
The surgeons cut there twice, to get to the tumors.
Then came radiation and chemotherapy.
Then, later, came a phone call.
The doctor told Isabella's mother, Sarita Zouvas, that it was useless to continue with the treatments.
It was over. The tumor had come back. It had spread, even. Isabella had a month at best.
Zouvas swore it would be longer.
And, despite Isabella's death in August 2001, it has been. It's today, tomorrow and this week and next week and next month and next year.
Zouvas started “Isabella's Gift,” a fundraising effort benefiting Rady Children's Hospital, where Isabella spent too much of her young life.
“When she died, I wondered why I was here,” Zouvas said. “Why was she here? There has to be a reason. And there is. She's going to leave a mark and help children and help families.”
This Thursday, Zouvas is holding a fundraiser at the On Broadway nightclub in downtown San Diego. This is hardly her area of expertise. The Chula Vista resident works for Southwest Airlines, in operations.
But she has been able to raise more than $100,000 in her daughter's name. Many people do this to cope, said Ken Druck, who knows. A psychologist, he started the San Diego-based Jenna Druck Foundation in 1996 in memory of his daughter who died in a bus accident in India. She was 21.
The foundation helps families grieve the loss of a child.
Each person is different, he said. This is a kind of pain that can't be described. He thinks of his daughter daily. Still. The key is to grieve, he said. To survive. No matter how great an achievement one makes in their child's name, it won't cure the sorrow.
Zouvas got the idea to help when Isabella fell ill in 2000. At first, she wanted to assist Latino patients because she speaks Spanish. “I thought, ‘When Isabella gets better, I want to help, any way I can.”
But Isabella didn't get better.
None of it made sense. Isabella was a healthy baby. She was a dream. Zouvas and her husband, Matthew, had a perfect little family.
One day, Isabella said her neck hurt. Later, she complained about being tired. She threw up in the mornings. She began falling down.
At first doctors thought it might be a flu or a fever. Later, they thought it might be a stomach problem.
Zouvas got a second opinion from a doctor in Tijuana who suspected meningitis. The next day, Zouvas told her doctors, who re-examined Isabella and told her she had to take her daughter to Rady Children's Hospital immediately.
Doctors there determined Isabella had a brain tumor and had to have surgery that day. Even though the tumor turned out to be cancerous, Zouvas was optimistic. The outcome of the surgery was good. She took her little girl home and life became somewhat normal again.
Zouvas even turned down a chance for Make-A-Wish because she figured Isabella would be fine, that another child deserved it instead.
Then the tumor came back.
After the second surgery, the doctors weren't as positive. Isabella began losing her hair to the chemotherapy. Zouvas chopped her hair short, too.
Zouvas showed me a picture of Isabella on the day the doctor called. She and her husband took her to beach after the call; they needed to get out of the house. It's heart-breaking to look that picture. Isabella had no idea of the call, of the doctor's words, of her fate. She's just a little girl, all smiles, playing at the beach.
Four days later, Zouvas and her husband threw a party for Isabella, telling her it was for her birthday. Held at the Spanish Landing, it featured clowns and pony rides and “a zillion gifts.” More than 150 people came. Isabella was delighted. The next day, she couldn't walk any longer.
The Zouvas's next took their daughter to Houston for alternative treatment, but that didn't work either. Now, Isabella wore diapers and was fed through tubes. In Houston, she fell into a coma and they had to bring her home on a private jet, which was donated by Southwest.
Isabella never woke up. On August 12, 2001, she died. All through telling the story, Zouvas waved her hands before her eyes to dry tears. After her child's death, she went through more than two years of grief counseling.
She later had two more children, Dimetri, now 6, and Mia, 5. But she wants Isabella to live on.
This Thursday, you can help with that. The fundraiser, The Art of Giving, starts at 7 p.m. at On Broadway, 615 Broadway on Thursday. Tickets are $45 in advance; $65 at the door. For more information, go to isabellasgift.org .