No one could have predicted the tragedy that hit the Sjonell family in 1999 only a year after they had left Sweden and moved to Kuala Lumpur. Being a happy child who had adapted to her new surroundings so easily, learnt English, and made many new friends, everyone was shocked when doctors announced that because of a brain tumor, five year old Madeleine only had another nine months to live.
Her parents did everything they could to save their little girl, and so did the doctors, but despite getting the best treatment available, Madeleine eventually had to give up. She had managed to stretch the nine months she had been given to 13, but still she was only six years old when she lost the fight with the disease that had haunted her little life for so long.
The loss of Madeleine came as a devastating blow to everyone who knew her. Her family suffered, but despite tremendous grief and sorrow, Madeleine’s mother Eva decided that she would do what she could in order to give something back to the medical community in Malaysia that had supported and helped her family so much.
When Madeleine was ill, everyone did whatever they could to treat her but her tumor was located on her brain stem – the switchboard of the brain and thus very delicate – and surgery was never an option. The fact that the Sjonell’s had insurance allowed them to go to the best private hospitals in Malaysia and to a couple abroad as well. Sadly, nothing worked. Madeleine passed away but only after everyone had tried their best to save her.
A while later, when Eva visited the pediatric cancer ward at a local Malaysian hospital, she was shocked at the realization that not all children got the medication or even the help they needed for a fighting chance in the struggle against cancer.
“It really hit me how lucky we were. Not in the sense that we had lost our daughter but we didn’t have that economical struggle. You meet so many families there,” she says and explains that you usually see mothers who have left a family of five or six people in rural parts of Malaysia behind to be with their sick child. These women have typically never been to KL before, and according to Eva there is a lot of fear and guilt in the air at those hospitals.
She had wanted to give something back, and it became clear to her that her help should go to people and institutions that really needed it.
“Don’t buy flowers”
When Madeleine died there was a memorial service at Mont’ Kiara International School where she had been a student since her family moved to KL. People came up to Eva to express their condolences, but at the same time they asked her what they could do and how they could help.
“’Don’t buy flowers, I said. Let’s start a collection of cash,’ and that was when the first donations came in,” she says.
The new organization, Madeleine Children’s Fund, or MCF as it quickly became known, soon became a reality as she and a couple of other mothers started raising funds. According to Eva, the hard part was to figure out how to spend the money in the best way. She did know, however, that it would go to children with cancer in Malaysia as this is a group that received little aid from other organizations. There were two large national cancer organizations in Malaysia, but both of them were mostly for adults. There was no specific children’s cancer fund in the country.
“There is a so-called ‘free medical service’ in Malaysia but it is very basic, and very limited. That’s why we chose not to work with the private hospitals where people like ourselves and other expats go. They have good medical insurances, but the University public hospitals help people who have basically nothing. Sometimes the hospitals will provide the chemo therapy to the child but not the catheters, and then it’s useless,” Eva explains and says that that is where MCF is able to help.
Whatever they need
Madeleine Children’s Fund works closely together with two pediatric oncology wards in Malaysia (HUKM and UMMC). Usually, it is the staff at those same hospitals that bring certain children to the organization’s attention.
“They know us well and they know we have funding. Typically, they will suggest children who need special care or medication or families who need help with funeral costs. They make a request to us, and that is usually how it goes. We have also done activities at hospitals, but the majority of the money goes for medication and equipment,” she says and adds that sometimes the items the children need are so basic. In some cases, it is milk powder rather than chemo that a child needs in order to recover, but hospitals do not always have the means to provide this.
Eva explains that they always know the name and age of the child they are sponsoring. They have a little bit of background information as well as information about the particular type of cancer the child has. The most common one is leukemia, which according to Eva has a pretty good chance of retreat. The second most common cancer type in children is tumors, but unfortunately those are always harder to treat. Once in a while, she and her fellow MCF members receive notice from the hospitals that one of the sponsored children has passed away.
Making a difference
As mentioned earlier, the whole reason for creating Madeleine Children’s Fund was to give something back to Malaysia and to help the children who are not as fortunate as Madeleine was in terms of treatment. There is no doubt in Eva’s mind that the help MCF is able to provide makes a world of difference to the families that need it. MCF is based solely on volunteer work and charity, and therefore all the money that is raised goes straight to the children.
“There is actually quite a lot of poverty among the families that you would meet in local hospitals, and they really, really need money. Even if they have the basic help, if we compare with our world, the basics are very, very limited, so buying milk powder for a one year old who also has leukemia, definitely makes a big, big difference,” she says.
Helping individual children, however, is only part of MCF’s work. Through fundraisers and other events, the organization helps creating awareness about cancer, and according to Eva, that is very important.
“We always see a lot of students, especially, in elementary all the way through high school who think that cancer is contagious and that you catch it like you catch a virus. Of course there is a fine line between informing and scaring people. I don’t think that anyone should live in fear to get a deadly disease but it could happen to anyone. It happened to our Madeleine. She had no symptoms, and there is no cancer in our family. It just happened. Somehow, I think that knowing that makes you appreciate your daily life a bit more,” she says.
For more information about Madeleine Children’s Fund, please visit