Teen on a mission of hope
Like many teenagers, Bella Muntean’s average day consists of a full agenda.
The 14-year-old Riverside High freshman plays the flute and piano, recently joined the photography club and was a member of this year’s homecoming court. She also has an Instagram account with close to 20,000 followers, has been asked for autographs across the country and has launched her own charity–all while undergoing treatment for a rare incurable bone cancer.
“Basically I was really big into dance and gymnastics. I was very healthy and fit. I ate very, very well,” Muntean said of the surprise diagnosis.
Three months after a lump under her right knee was labeled as a common bone disease known as Osgood-Schlatter Disease, Muntean woke up unable to breathe with an extreme pain in her chest. Emergency x-rays revealed osteosarcoma that had spread to her lungs.
“I was stunned. Literally, the scans looked like I had a snowstorm in my lungs,” she said.
A biopsy of the lump in her leg confirmed diagnosis of the cancer that affects approximately 400 teens and children a year worldwide. Surgery was performed to remove the majority of Muntean’s tibia, some of her femur and knee. From January to July 2016, she was unable to walk. She received aggressive chemotherapy for 11 months until nearing toxicity. She missed school for one-and-a-half years.
During that time, the compassionate teenager felt a calling to help other kids facing similar journeys.
“After a few months of treatment, I realized I now understood what is helpful to these families and what they need,” Muntean said. “I told my mom I want to do something. I want to help, and I want to make some kind of small impact.”
Time constraints and legalities dissuaded the family from creating a nonprofit.
“(Bella said) let’s just start it without making it a nonprofit, and God will show us the way if that’s what is meant to be. So that’s what we’ve done,” said Brenda Muntean, Bella’s mom.
Angels of Hope
Muntean’s medical experiences and enjoyed pastimes led her to begin her Angels of Hope mission–donating surprise-filled pillowcases and American Girl dolls to patients at Greenville Health System, Children’s Security Blanket (Spartanburg) and Cleveland Clinic, where she is still receiving immunotherapy/antibody and radium treatments for a tumor found in March.
“Right before (my leg reconstruction) surgery, I was waiting to go back, and there was a nurse who was helping me get ready and she drew an angel on my pillowcase. That pillowcase went in with me during my surgery and my surgery ended up being miraculous…The tumor turned out to be 90 percent dead when we thought that it was still fully alive prior to the surgery,” she said.
“After my surgery, with chemos and different things I was going through I would bring the pillowcase with me, and I always found out that it was kind of a good luck charm for me.”
Knowing the comfort the pillowcase brought her, Muntean asked GHS pre-op nurse Pam Wrobel if she would be interested in helping provide the cases for other pediatric patients. She agreed to draw the custom angels on drawstring pillowcases, and Angels of Hope was born.
Through individual and church donations, the family fills the cases with goodies, toys, activity books and items that Muntean personally knows will benefit cancer patients–mints and lemon drops for nausea, Biotene for mouth sores and dry mouth, and gift cards for families to buy meals outside of the hospital.
The mission has delivered approximately 50 pillowcases since April.
A true American Girl
In addition to the pillowcases, Muntean also donates American Girl dolls. She was a fan of the popular doll before her diagnosis, but they took on a new significance after she received a bald doll during one of her hospital stays.
“We call her Mini Bella,” she said. “Mini Bella would go with me to every chemotherapy, every surgery, every major event, and she was always dressed up. She gave me so much hope to have like a little person with me for everything. If we give these dolls to other girls, then they can have a companion with them throughout their treatments. It was just awesome to know it helped me and it might help others.”
Muntean began a fundraiser on Instagram to help purchase dolls at the American Girl Benefit Sale in Wisconsin. She was able to buy 16 dolls to donate with the $1,000 raised.
And while privacy laws prevent delivering the donations directly to patients, the family has received feedback.
“I have had a family respond to us about the American Girl doll. Their little girl had just finished her last chemo and she had wanted an American Girl doll so bad, but they could not afford one. And the mother even said she cried. It was so good to hear from them and see the photos,” Muntean said. “It makes us so happy. I can’t even explain. We want to continue this for as long as we can…Forever.”
The American Girl doll connection has also garnered the teen more recognition than she ever expected. After she started posting about her treatments on her Instagram page thenookdolls, she began receiving cards, packages and dolls from fellow enthusiasts across the nation.
She has attended meet ups at American Girl stores in New York, Los Angeles and Orlando. Occasionally she has been recognized from her account and asked for her autograph. In Chicago, a little girl ran to get her family so they could get a photo with thenookdolls creator.
Muntean even wrote to and received a response back from American Girls creator Pleasant Rowland. A cancer survivor herself who donates thousands of bald dolls to hospitals, Rowland sent Muntean a prototype item and a letter calling her “a true American girl.”
While Muntean’s mission has had far-reaching impact, she recently shared her cancer awareness effort closer to home.
During Riverside’s homecoming game, she, along with fellow students Isaiah Bailey and Hailey Phillips (whose cancers are in remission), helped organize a “Gold Out” to raise funds for GHS BiLo Charity Children’s Cancer Center. Through t-shirt sales and donations, the one-night event raised $1,375. The money will be used to help sponsor a Christmas lunch event at the hospital.
“I am so proud to go to Riverside and have them starting this amazing tradition where we’re raising money for the hospital and awareness for childhood cancer because we only get four cents out of every dollar that is raised for cancer research,” Muntean said.
“Just supporting the BiLo Charities Children’s Cancer Center in our area, you are making such a huge impact with these families’ lives in giving them hope to continue fighting, and letting them know they are not alone, they are loved and they have a purpose in this life,” Brenda Muntean said.
“Our life was turned upside down and thrown into a tornado in an instant but through unconditional love, support and prayers from our loving family, friends and community, they lift us up giving us hope daily to keep fighting our battles and not feel alone. We will not let cancer define or defeat us because the blessings we have received are immeasurable and we are thankful to God for it all,” she continued.
The daughter of Dorin and Brenda Muntean, sister to Julia and member of Covenant United Methodist Church hopes her cause will continue to inspire.
“You would never think that this would happen to you, but in reality it can happen to anyone regardless of your gender or your race or how healthy you are. It can happen to anyone and spreading awareness is so important because (cancer) is affecting so many people in our world and in our area especially. These children are our future, and they want to be our future doctors and they want to make an impact in this world. By raising more awareness, you are helping save their lives to enable them to do that,” she said.
To donate to Muntean’s mission, visit the Angels of Hope Against Cancer gofundme page. To follow Bella’s Journey, visit www.caringbridge.org/visit/bellasjourney2.
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