Bell-ringing mitzvah project brings hope to cancer patients

August 30, 2017
Prostate cancer patient Art Tostado, with Isabella Spar, rang the New Beginning Bell at Cedars-Sinai on Aug. 17. The bell was donated by Spar as part of her bat mitzvah project. Photo by Bill Pollard/Cedars-Sinai

In the waiting room of the Radiation Oncology Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a New Beginning Bell is mounted on the wall. It’s attached to a plaque inscribed with a poem:

Ring this bell
Three times well
Its toll will clearly say
My treatment’s done
My course is run
And now I’m on my way.

It tolls loudly two or three times every day as doctors, nurses and fellow patients applaud individuals completing their treatments. And it’s there because of 13-year-old Isabella Spar and her bat mitzvah project.

So far, Spar has raised $5,000 via sales of charm bracelets and chokers she makes and sells on her website, projectbell.org, to finance bells for any cancer treatment center that wants one. Seven bells have been donated so far, including the one at Cedars-Sinai, which was installed in April, and there’s money for five more. But fundraising will continue, Spar said.

She got the idea when her mother, Wendy Jeshion, underwent radiation treatment for a benign brain tumor at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and rang a bell at its completion.

“It was an incredible feeling. It brought everyone together,” Spar said. “They had these bracelets there, but they got worn out easily and my mom asked me to make her a new one. So I made one with a bell and charms on it. And then I made more for friends and family.”

Then, she thought, it would be a great idea for her bat mitzvah project. “I wanted to do something big, not just donate but be part of it,” said Spar, who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., and became a bat mitzvah on April 29. She said that relatives, friends and congregation members wore her jewelry at the ceremony.

“It made me feel proud that I did something special and so happy that I could share that happiness with other people,” she said.

“I’ve always tried to help people,” she added. “After going through this with my mom and knowing I’ve helped so many more people like her is amazing.”

According to her mother, Isabella has always been “that kind of a kid.”

“When she heard there was a big earthquake when she was 5 years old, she emptied her piggy bank and donated every cent. Words cannot describe how proud I am,” Jeshion said.

Isabella Spar and her mother, Wendy Jeshion Photo by Bill Pollard/Cedars-Sinai

A pediatric gastroenterologist, Jeshion was diagnosed with a noncancerous tumor in 2015 and was advised to have surgery and radiation to stop its growth, which could cause blindness. But a month later, she was hit in the head by a baseball, suffering facial damage and a concussion, which rendered the tumor inoperable.

Jeshion consulted many doctors, including Dr. Behrooz Hakimian at Cedars-Sinai, who recommended a 28-day course of radiation over nearly six weeks. Ultimately, she had the treatment in Boston because it was closer to her New York home.

She acknowledged that it has been a difficult time for her family, “but to turn a tough two years into something so beautiful is as good as it gets. Following my treatment, my father bought me a bell, and every morning I ring it when I wake up. It provides a feeling of hope,” she said.

Hakimian said those who ring Cedars’ bell feel the same. “It’s like running a marathon, seeing the finish line and then crossing it. They feel some achievement and other people in the waiting room know their time will come. Positivity is so important in the healing process,” he said. “And this gives them a bit of closure so they can move on to the next step in their lives.”

Art Tostado, a 71-year-old prostate cancer patient who is retired from the motion picture laboratory business, rang the bell last month as Isabella, her sister Alexa, 11, their father, Jeff Spar, and Jeshion witnessed the personal milestone.

“It meant everything to me,” Tostado said. “I’ve done some research about bells and their importance through the centuries. They call people off to new journeys, which this is.

“In this day and age, with all this technology, a bell is still being used to get us through this. It’s very emotional.”

“I cry every time I watch somebody else ring the bell because I know how much they and their families have gone through,” Jeshion said, through tears. “It gives them hope, strength and something to strive for.”

In the spirit of tikkun olam, Isabella said she is trying to do her part to heal the world.

“There’s so much going on in the world right now and it makes me feel really good to know that I made a difference in some way,” she said, “and that doing a little bit made the world a better place.”

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