They called him Superman Sam, but Samuel Asher Sommer wasn’t really a man of steel.
He was a boy of 8.
Sam had dark curly hair and a great sense of comedic timing. He loved video games, math puzzles, his pet turtle Speedy, and perhaps most of all to hear a room erupt in laughter that he instigated.
Diagnosed with refractory acute myeloid leukemia at age 7, Sam was very brave but also very sick. His parents, Chicago-area rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, offered insight and optimism from the front lines of their son’s cancer journey on their “supermansamuel” blog. Some of their posts read like messages in a bottle sent from some unimaginable desert island.
The posts offered hope even at the most precarious moments, and Sam’s story was chronicled in the Chicago Tribune. As news spread of the boy's struggle and the parents' candor, prayers and well wishes flowed toward the Sommer family from throughout the community.
Superman Sam, as he became known, received a bone marrow transplant Aug. 27, 2013 in Milwaukee at Children’s Hospital Wisconsin. He rallied, and for a time appeared to be making real progress.
But then he relapsed. The boy, who got such a giggle out of squirting water at his nurses and kidding his doctors, died Dec. 14 after an 18-month battle with the second most common form of childhood blood cancer.
When Phyllis Sommer wrote on the blog, “My whole universe collapsed in on me at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday,” she was understating her sense of grief.
In the wake of Sam’s death, Phyllis and Michael stared into the chasm of their loss--and decided to celebrate their son's remarkable spirit in a way that would give honor to a life cut short by cancer. After learning so much about the funding inequity for childhood cancer research--it receives just 4 percent of the total available federal research dollars--they became determined to do their part.
They created a fundraiser for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which outside the federal government annually raises the most money for childhood cancer research in America. The Sommers' event is called “36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave.”
With a rabbinical network that stretches from Illinois to Florida, New York to California, what began as a humble offering of hair and hope is taking on a life of its own. With more than 50 “shavees” and approximately $300,000 raised heading into Saturday’s annual nationwide St. Baldrick’s event, the rabbis are going bald, bringing in bucks for research and making the case for need.
Like other parents of patients in the nation's pediatric oncology wards, they know cancer kills more children than all other major diseases combined. And the major private research fundraiser in the country that likes to be known as the greatest nation on the planet consists of an army of volunteers who collect dollars and shave their heads in solidarity.
“It’s not only with the goal of raising a lot of money, but also with the goal of raising a lot of awareness,” Phyllis says. Her son’s story is, “unfortunately, not particularly unique, but the fact my husband and I are storytellers is unique. We wanted to create something big in his memory, but also in memory of all the kids.”
“Sam was very spunky and silly, and he also had a quick wit,” Phyllis says. “Something would catch his fancy, and he would be able to play off that with you. He loved to make us laugh.”
But it’s important to remember that he was just a boy, one who deserved to live a long life.
Through her heartache the rabbi, a mother first and always, pauses and adds, “I know damn well that the only real benefit I can make is in helping to fund research. I know that the best way we can end this, the only way, is to raise money for research. I have to do that.”
John L. Smith is an author, daily columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and, most of all, the grateful father of a childhood cancer survivor. He captains “Amelia’s Team,” now in its eighth year of fundraising for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.