“Never put a bumper sticker on a Mercedes, that’s what she would always say.”
Alyssa Pagano chuckles as she shows off her new tattoo dedicated to her mother, Jennifer Pagano, who passed on June 25, because of a long two-year battle with Leukemia. “It’s her handwriting saying she misses and loves me, just so I never forget,” she said with a soft smile.
On a Monday, the doctors told Jennifer she needed to go into hospice care because there was nothing more they could do to help her. That Tuesday, Pagano told her final “I love you” and faced the dreadful decision of her burial arrangements.
Pagano is the president of the Humanitarian Society on the Dobbs Ferry campus. Their first event of the year was a bake sale on Oct. 1 to donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in honor of her mother.
“I just want to make her proud. She was the Humanitarian Society’s biggest supporter. It made her so happy to see the work we would do to help others in need and I want to make her proud. I also just want people to be informed about cancer since it is a leading cause of death,” she said.
September is a national Blood Cancer Month and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society is the world’s largest voluntary health organization dedicated to fighting blood cancer. The LLS’s mission is to cure Leukemia, Lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and myeloma. They also raise money to improve the quality of life of patients and their families.
Leukemia is a cancer of blood-forming tissue, including bone marrow. Many patients with slow-growing types of leukemia don’t have symptoms. Rapidly growing types of leukemia may cause symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss, frequent infections, and easy bleeding or bruising.
For slow-growing leukemia, treatment may include monitoring. For aggressive leukemia, treatment includes chemotherapy that is sometimes followed by radiation and a stem-cell transplant.
Pagano’s mother had to do chemo-therapy once a month, with multiple doctor appointments throughout the week. She went from being an active mother and medical assistant to staying in hospitals for weeks at a time, going in and out of the hospital.
She had a special case of leukemia, Chronic Myelomonocytic Leukemia or (CMML). It occurs when monocytes in the bone marrow grow out of control, filling the bone marrow and preventing other blood cells from growing. Cells in any part of the body can become cancerous and can spread in any part of the body. CMML is so rare, occurring in about four out of every 1 million people.
Pagano could get a bone marrow transplant from her brother and for some time it worked, however, it began to show complications and had to get removed.
That never stopped her from going out to eat by herself, getting the lunch special and unlimited shrimp from Outback which was her favorite restaurant. It also didn’t stop her from showing unconditional love and support to her daughter and 17-year-old son Michael.
“We would always laugh at her for going to eat alone, she just didn’t care and wanted to live life to the fullest,” Alyssa said.
She still enjoyed what she had left of life and kept a positive attitude for her two children.
“She would always visit Mercy and we would walk around campus all the time, we would also always eat at Suzanne’s Table in Dobbs Ferry.”
Pagano feels as if she sees a piece of her spirt everywhere on campus. Every laugh, secret and tears they both share remains a vivid memory in her everyday life.
Grief has not been easy for Pagano. However, her kind smile and dedication to school, work and taking care of her younger brother makes the job look like a walk in the park.
“I have good days and bad days. I go to therapy and I have people I talk to often. I’ve never been this upset before in my life and it’s all very new to me but I told her I would make her proud. I want to do that with this club. I can’t just give up,” she said.
The Humanitarian Society has helped several non-profit organizations. From volunteering at city harvest, giving people in need of fresh produce to hosting fundraisers for Girl Inc., an organization to equip girls in the community with mentoring and tutoring.
“This club has inspired my mom to be better and help people in need,” she said. They meet every Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Hudson Hall”.
Pagano wants to keep her legacy alive through donating to people with the same struggles her mom had to face. Her strength and perseverance have helped gather new members in the club to help her vision come to fruition.
There are dark days that are still difficult for her as this happened so suddenly.
“Things trigger me and I have support but nothing will fill the void of your mother. No boyfriend, no friend, nothing will ever fill that void.”
Regardless, Pagano gets up for class, works, and makes time to plan future events for the Humanitarian Society. She has also been the main emotional support for her brother.
“Appreciate all the time you have with your parents and ask a lot of questions about life. My mom will never see me have a career, never see me get married, never see me have kids. I wish I had asked her more questions.”
Alyssa and Michael laugh as they remember their fun-loving mother, who could tear apart a whole crab by herself without a care in the world. One would not deny that she is very proud of watching over them and their courage to start a new day.