RIP Nora Šitum, “Brave Little Lion” Who United Croatia

In early February, thousands of Croatian citizens managed to raise enough money in just over a week to make it possible for Nora Šitum, a 5-year-old Croatian girl, to travel to the United States to receive treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Nora passed away a month and a half later, on March 20, 2013, and again the whole country was united, grieving the loss of this mali hrabri lav, a brave little lion – or strašni lav, a scary lion, as the girl liked to call herself.

Nora's story became widely known in Croatia on Feb. 1, when local papers published this appeal for help [hr] written by her mother, Djana Atanasovska, and netizens helped share it [hr]:

Nora Šitum is 5 years and 8 months old. She’s one special and very unusual human being. Those who know her will confirm this. And those who don’t know her… well, you should meet her!

Her short and carefree childhood ended abruptly on Dec. 1, 2010, when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. On that day, our lives were turned upside down. On that day, our lives were turned into hell. On that day, our struggle began. The struggle for life.

We started the lengthy and excruciating therapy, which lasted nine long months, at the pediatric hematology department of the Rebro Hospital in Zagreb. From the very beginning, nothing was going smoothly: on the 27th day of her treatment, Nora went into a coma, which lasted 11 days, and that's when she was [said to have no chances of recovery].

But she woke up! And began her life from scratch. Learned to walk, talk and eat again… An extraordinary human being. A little creature with a big heart and an even bigger strength! She was through with her therapy, and we went home to recuperate. Slowly, we were returning to life. With a lot of pills, numerous blood tests and checkups, but we were at home, we were together and she was almost healthy! And this is how it was for ten months, when the damn disease returned.

[…] And… it all began anew! Again, the hospital. Again, the shock. Again, the long-term chemotherapy. For six months. […] Things were going well… and then again! The disease returned again. Three times up till now!

Eighty percent of the children with leukemia recover. They all […] go through their suffering, but one day, luckily, all is left is an ugly memory. Nora, unfortunately, is among the 20 percent. But she is strong as a lion. Or, a scary lion, as she says it.

There is no more cure for her. Her doctors, children's hematologists at Rebro, are wonderful people. The did all they could. For my lion and for the rest of the children. But they are only humans, not gods. They have nothing more to give her. The disease has become resistant to everything.

But as there's always a little light at the end of the tunnel, we learned about a new method of treatment at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, which was in the news a lot a month and a half ago. Just when Nora got to the last line of defense. […]

That is our only and last chance. That or to wait helplessly by the hospital bed, counting hours and days until my little lion's life ends. What parent is capable of that, knowing that there is hope somewhere?

We got in touch with the hospital in Philadelphia […]. They are waiting for us, and time is our worst enemy […]. In this condition, without therapy, she cannot live long.

In the next eight days we have to board a plane that will take us into our new struggle. The most important one, the last one. […]

The problem, as always, is money.

The treatment costs $575,000. About 3.3 million [Croatian] kuna. This amount is making us dizzy. We don't have it. Please help us! […] For every child who, God forbid, may end up in this situation. Let's move the boundaries together!

And when we return, you'll meet our Nora. She's an amazing human being, I'm telling you… You'll see for yourself. We will win! Definitely… WE HAVE TO! […]

Vratimo osmijeh Nori na lice (“Let's return the smile to Nora's face”), a Facebook page with over 137,600 fans, became the chief engine of the unprecedented fundraising and support initiative – Nora u ♥ (Nora u srcu – “With Nora in heart”) – and one of the main citizen media sources of news on Nora's struggle.

An update posted on Feb. 9 on Vratimo osmijeh Nori na lice page said [hr] that Nora and her parents were already in the United States, and that her condition was stable. But time was not on her side.

Screen shot 2013-03-22 at 1.36.02 AM

On March 20, the day Nora died, her mother wrote [hr] to the community of the little girl's supporters:

[…] We were with her until the last moment. She left peacefully and quietly. Beautiful as ever. […]

We love you and thank you for your unconditional and selfless support during this time! […]

P.S. I'll add that heaven is big enough for her energy and hyperactivity. Here, she didn't have enough space :-) !

Later, a message [hr] from Nora's father, Ivica Šitum, appeared:

[…] At 0:20, or 5:20 AM our time, our little soul has left her battered body. Mama's and papa's scary lion left and joined her pack of little lions, who have gone before her. She departed for her little friends with bald heads and sad, tired eyes – hopefully, into a better and happier world. […]

She is forever free. No injections, no medicines, no tears and no pain. She died in our arms and next to our hearts, which, until the end of days, will be filled with love and memories of her. Rest in peace, our little, tired, scary lion. Mama and papa love you.

Also on March 20, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia posted this statement [en] on its Facebook page:

[…] We are very sorry for the loss of Nora Situm, and express our deepest sympathies to her parents, family, and many friends and supporters in Croatia. During the time Nora was in our care we were in awe of the tremendous courage and spirit displayed by her and her parents.

While we were all hopeful that Nora might benefit from the T-cell therapy trial, unfortunately she passed away before she was able to receive T-cell therapy. We believe that every child deserves a chance and Nora’s parents and supporters went to extraordinary lengths to give that chance to her. We hope that her family, her supporters, and the people of Croatia find comfort in knowing they did all they could for this remarkable little girl. […]

With Nora in their hearts, people continue [hr] to offer condolences online.

And many netizens were posting messages on the Croatian government's Facebook page [hr]. Here is one [hr], by Ivica Šegović:

May her death be a warning to you! If you have money to buy [1,742 vehicles worth 265.5 million kuna], then there has to be the money to treat a sick child who has just begun to live! We are not blaming you for her death, but we want to draw attention to the fact that these angels must be provided with treatment. R.I.P. little angel ♥

Another message to the Croatian government, by Maja Maček [hr] of Varaždin, reportedly [hr] received some 27,000 like and 755 comments, and was shared by many netizens:

I don't know if you've heard of the little girl Nora, we called her [Nora the scary lion]. She wasn't yet 6, the sad-eyed girl, the girl who has today put you all to shame – the whole government and all the politicians, and do you know why? – because she has done what you never will – she has united the whole country, regardless of the name, ethnicity, village, town, county… She has united children, young people, adults, old people, and with her childlike, innocent simplicity she has entered into the hearts of each of us and of all she has made ​​one great heart that was beating in sync. That night, when it turned out that money had to be raised to save her life – everyone gave as much as they could, for all of us time stopped, everything became irrelevant except for whether we have collected enough. […] One girl showed you that love is stronger than anything, and it is something that you are lacking!

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