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September 26, 2018
Tampa woman keeps her brother’s memory alive with her resolve to support children’s cancer research.
Losing a loved one is never easy. Even when the death is anticipated, we’re never fully prepared for the onslaught of grief. However, as we navigate grief’s stages, at some juncture, we might become ready, willing, and able to turn loss into inspirational action.
Luana Paloma was 12 when her brother, 4-year-old Lawrence, was diagnosed with a rare tumor on his spinal cord. The next two years consisted of chemotherapy, radiation and a number of surgeries. He passed away aged 6. “I basically lived in the hospital for two years,” Paloma says. “All of the details are forever engrained in my mind—the smells, nurses’ faces and familiar hallways. It all stays with you.”
Today an attorney, wife to an anesthesiologist, and mom of two girls, Paloma felt ready to do something about pediatric cancer. After years of thinking about the risks associated with treatment and recalling Lawrence’s deterioration—with issues ranging from hair loss and vomiting to cardiac complications—she started the Lawrence A. Martucci Benefit, Corp. in 2011, the 20th anniversary of Lawrence’s death. “Not allowing his memory to fade has always been important,” Paloma says. “LAMB keeps his memory alive and shifts focus from treatment to prevention.”
This focus on prevention of childhood leukemia centers around the lab of Dr. Cameron Tebi’s, the physician who treated Lawrence 20-plus years ago. Fate reconnected him and Paloma at a hospital gala, when she learned that Tebi had focused on research since retiring from practice. “He’s found a protein that turns leukemic cells cancerous and he’s intent on creating a screening process that’s administered at birth,” Paloma explains. “Tebi is investigating if the protein could be introduced to a blood sample, and babies then given a vaccine.” Proud to have Tebi’s lab in Tampa, Luana is determined to continue gaining the community support needed for ongoing research. “I’m hopeful this research will also open doors to other preventions,” She says. “Every step of the research process costs thousands. There’s a paid research assistant to account for, and lab machinery costs more than $14,000.”
LAMB is thankful for support from the Tampa Bay Lighting as well as many bay area krewes. Through LAMB, Paloma came to know the Children’s Cancer Research Group and the One Voice Foundation. The three organizations collaborate, making Tebi’s ongoing research possible. Together, the groups also support needed infrastructure for families dealing with pediatric cancer so they can receive things like counseling and academic tutoring. Paloma admits that getting support for research is difficult, “Our focus is research. We’re not giving teddy bears and hospital visits. It’s a hard sell, but financial support gets us closer to a vaccine and to ending cancer treatments.” LAMB does host a family art day for pediatric cancer patients. Patients’ art becomes part of the gala’s silent auction. Parents get to drop the kids off and the patients enjoy a full day of crafting, carnival games and lunch. Eternally grateful for LAMB’s supporters, Paloma is intent on organizing more events that give committee members and donors opportunity for fulfillment.
Executing LAMB’s annual gala takes many people. “My husband is out there working just as hard as I am. He’s my heavy lifter. It’s awe-inspiring how all of my friends’ partners have big, open hearts,” Paloma says. Her daughters, ages 11 and 8, are also involved: “They understand the research and events are associated with an uncle they never met. It’s rewarding to see how the experiences strengthen their sense of empathy, understanding of people with differences and humility.”
When Paloma started LAMB, it was without any prior knowledge of how to do something like this. “I started calling the people I felt closest with, and no one hesitated.” Completing the 501C application took eight months and LAMB’s first meetings were emotional. But LAMB is growing. It raised raised $20,000 in its first year and more each subsequent year: “Lawrence always guides me,” Paloma says.
For Paloma, LAMB has proven an important component of the grief journey. “It’s been a healing process. It’s healed my heart, and I sometimes feel selfish that this has been so good for me.” Having accepted Lawrence’s destiny, she and her loved ones now work to prevent the same outcome for others.