There is a Chasidic story that holds there are 36 hidden righteous people in the world at any given time, and it is the goodness of those 36, known as lamed vavniks, that God chooses to sustain humanity.
It is just possible that on January 23, we lost a lamed vavnik when Meghan Steinberg died. At just 33, she lost her 11-year battle with cancer, but throughout her journey as she climbed Meghan’s Mountain, as she called it, again and again, she made a difference in this world.
When she was first diagnosed, the idea started small. People don’t understand cancer, she realized, so she hoped to shed light on it by sharing her story and insisting that her father and caregiver, Jerry Steinberg, do so as well. So, in February 2005, they began sending out emails to family and friends.
This was pre-Facebook, and Jerry said they sent out only five emails. What they didn’t realize was that their emails were being forwarded to others.
On July 5 that year, Meghan was scheduled for her first bone marrow transplant. They arrived in Seattle early and Meghan’s birthday was July 2. Jerry sent an email asking people to send birthday cards. He reported that 550 cards arrived from around the country and even as far away as Africa.
When she returned to Louisville, Meghan decided to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Association’s Light the Night campaign. Jerry went out to dinner at the Chick Inn that night and was talking about the plan. The owner overheard and got back to him the next day. She had arranged for her suppliers to donate food and her workers volunteered to work for free.
Restricted from being out in public because of her compromised immune system, Meghan only gave a speech about fighting cancer at the end of the shift. Between that fundraiser and another similar one elsewhere, Meghan raised more than $20,000.
A year later, when Meghan returned to Seattle for her checkup and was released from her restrictions, Jerry offered to celebrate by taking her downtown and buying her whatever she wanted. Meghan asked to go visit cancer patients at the children’s hospital. She stopped in a room with a young Hispanic girl and her mother. The mother didn’t speak English so the girl had to translate all the doctor’s comments for her. Even though it was mid-Summer, Meghan asked the girl what she wanted for Christmas. A boom box, the child replied.
Later, when they left the room, Meghan asked her father what he saw in the room. Jerry started describing the medical equipment and furnishings. Meghan stopped him and said, “You weren’t looking closely.” That child didn’t have cards on her wall or a computer or anything else. “You want to buy me something?” she asked. “Buy a boom box.” Meghan had the boom box gift wrapped and delivered it to the child’s room.
Jerry said this incident was the start of the Meghan’s Mountain Foundation, and the purpose of the foundation is to meet the individual needs of cancer patients and their families because Meghan believed that the big corporations could take care of funding research.
Former University of Louisville Coach Denny Crum often makes hospital visits, and shortly after Meghan was diagnosed, he visited her. She touched him with her spirit and he became a close friend and a fundraising partner.
Among the things Meghan made happen through her foundation were one week of free camp for cancer patients and Indian Summer Camp or Camp Quality; a respite night at Gilda’s club for the parents of pediatric cancer patients where sitters stayed with the young patients freeing up the parents to come to Gilda’s Club for a nice dinner with wine; a week for teens cancer patients at Red River Gorge; and Christmas gifts for patients at Kosair Children’s Hospital.
Meghan saw things that others didn’t, Jerry said. She got Kosair Children’s Hospital to provide a room then purchased a washer and dryer so that parents of pediatric patients from distant communities who were in the hospital for extended periods would have a place to do their laundry. She bought exercise equipment for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle so patients preparing for and recovering from transplants would have a place to build up their strength. She bought blanket warmers and comfortable recliners for the James Graham Brown Cancer Center.
She never knew a stranger and had an uncanny ability to talk to people, giving them the courage and strength to climb their own mountains. Even if she was in pain or feeling ill, Meghan was always ready to help others in any way she could and to thank those who helped her.
While she was in Hosparus, Meghan asked him to carry on her foundation after she was gone. At first Jerry said he didn’t think he could, but Meghan convinced him that the good he would be doing would help him cope with the pain.
Since Meghan’s death, Jerry said, cards have come in from all over the world, and many of them have handwritten stories about how Meghan helped them. In addition, Jerry has received almost $13,000 in her memory.
What will he do? Expand the Meghan’s Mountain Advisory Board and continue Meghan’s unique way of doing tikkun olam, one cancer patient at a time.
Was Meghan Steinberg a lamed vavnik? Maybe, maybe not. But she certainly touched many people and made a difference for good in this world.