A prayer for Gloria | "She teaches us all so much each day about life"
As the 11-year-old continues her battle with cancer, thousands take inspiration from her faith and generous spirit.
Seattle Times staff columnist
A prayer for Gloria
- A tribute to Gloria
- Paying respects to Gloria
- Gloria Strauss, 1996-2007
- At Gloria's side
- A prayer from Gloria
- Lying in intensive care
- Gloria in her own words
- Nine lives: Inside the Strauss house
- The Strauss family
- Life with Gloria
- Strauss family blog
- Gloria's school site
- Lisa Tran's song "A Prayer for Gloria" on YouTube
Multimedia & photos
Laboring for each breath, straining for each word, speaking in a staccato rhythm, Gloria Strauss prays from her hospital bed.
"I've never actually thought about what's in my body. And what it's doing, how it can spread."
The hiss of her oxygen tank competes with her voice.
"And so I really want to pray tonight for the tumors that are moving throughout my body."
Bones, bone marrow, brain, liver, lymph nodes, lung — cancer violating an 11-year-old girl. Gloria takes a longer pause, shifts the conversation to all the people who are suffering. She gains stamina, picks up her pace. She concludes with a prayer that grips all 13 people in her hospital room.
"So I really just ask right now, dear Jesus, that you hold each and every one of us in your arms," she says. "Our bodies, hold them tight and squeeze them hard. Put us on your shoulders, so that we can feel it. Amen."
Everyone smiles as the room turns peaceful and silent. They are experiencing another Gloria moment.
Such moments are sprinkled across her life, much like the glitter she often wears. More than four years ago, Gloria was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer that is supposed to kill her. Gloria believes God will heal her because of a voice her mother, Kristen Strauss, heard before this journey even began.
When I heal her, I will change the lives of many.
Kristen says God was speaking to her. The Strausses trust those words. After a stem-cell transplant, three experimental drugs and seven bouts of chemotherapy, Gloria abandoned cancer treatment five months ago and opted to lean strictly on her Catholic faith.
Now, surrounded by friends and family, lying beneath a wall clock with the word "Believe" hanging from it, she is ready for what could be her final battle.
She is not alone. Her story has captivated the lives of many, her reach extending far beyond her Federal Way community. Thousands of people who know only her name and her story pray for her. "In this culture of death, she teaches us all so much each day about life," says John Miller, Gloria's cousin.
Gloria teaches it to friends, nurses, fellow sufferers, mothers and strangers. Anyone who exposes his or her heart.
Taylor Freyberg, one of Gloria's best friends, visits often. The 12-year-old, who suffers from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, looks at Gloria and tells her how she loves to see her big, blue eyes.
Gloria smiles at Taylor and says, "You look pretty, too."
A friend: Taylor Freyberg
"Gloria, she's like my sister in Christ. She's an inspiration.
I had to have surgery recently, and while I was in the hospital, Gloria's room was exactly above mine. When she was in a coma, I went up talk to her. I said, 'I love you, Gloria. You're going to be OK. We're always going to be here for you.'
When I was saying things, she would squeeze my hand. It gave me a reassuring feeling. She's still here, still fighting.
It makes it easier having someone like Gloria around. You feel like you're not alone."
Gloria's father, Doug Strauss, wants to talk about heaven.
Five weeks ago, Gloria entered Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center in Seattle. Her heart had stopped, but she survived the seizures, overcame a medically induced coma, and after 13 tense days, she breathed again on her own, without a ventilator.
Being practical, Dad wants to discuss all possibilities. During previous attempts at this conversation, Gloria has frowned at her father. On this day, she is hesitant but listens.
"Gloria, if you gave me two choices — go to heaven right now or stay here, be with my family and take my chances — I'd take door No. 2," Doug tells her. "I'm scared of heaven, too, because I don't want to leave my family, either. But you need to allow God to be in control. I acknowledge your fear. I acknowledge my fear, honey. Do you understand?"
Gloria nods. They are talking a day after she was confirmed, a religious rite that symbolizes the deepening of faith.
The Strausses do not believe God is telling them to let go, so they pray for his will first and then the healing miracle. By talking to Gloria about heaven, Doug hopes to give his daughter some peace of mind as she awaits her fate.
"For us, it's pretty clear," he says. "Jesus is the healing and the healer. Either Gloria lives or she's going to heaven. As parents, we want our kids, ultimately, to go to heaven. So the healing is going to happen, no matter what. A lot of people think we're only praying for the miracle we want. "
During a break from heavy conversation, Brooke James, a nurse who has helped Gloria for four years, enters the room. By the end of the visit, James and another nurse are dancing. And Gloria is laughing.
A nurse: Brooke James
"I've heard a lot of nurses talk about Gloria and say, 'God, she's a miracle.' Even before the past month, people have said that to me.
I would say a lot of kids in her position, with as much neuroblastoma that's in her body, with her respiratory status, wouldn't have made it off the ventilator. It's amazing that she's lived this long when, in April, doctors gave her just a few weeks.
When I first met Gloria, I thought she was so beautiful. Not just physically, although she definitely is, but it was immediately evident that she has a beautiful spirit.
Although we did not immediately talk about our common faith in Christ, I knew something was unique and wonderful about their family. Our shared faith has created our close bond.
Gloria has inspired me to love my family and friends like she does. I want to be like her when I grow up."
Back home in Federal Way, 30 miles from the hospital, normalcy feels awkward. The parents have had to split duties.
While Doug, who is still on leave from teaching at Kennedy High School in Burien, stays with his ill daughter, Kristen tries to restore order for the rest of the family.
Five of Gloria's six siblings prepare for school each weekday morning, with 11-month-old Vincent needing constant attention. Mom helps them rise, dress and get moving, all the while longing to be with Gloria. Kristen feels displaced in her own home.
"I've had many moments," Kristen admits, "where I said, 'I can't do this anymore.' "
Doug and Kristen were set to take their daughter home two weeks ago, but Gloria told them she was more comfortable in the hospital. They agree that some of her problems require constant care instead of regular visits from hospice nurses. The family's patience continues to be tested.
"I want it to be over, but what does that mean?" Kristen asks. "If it means Gloria not being here with us, I don't want it to be over."
Gloria focuses on living simply. One day. One goal. Maybe it will all add up.
In the meantime, she continues to pray. She learns of another sick child on her floor and offers up all her pain to God for that child's healing.
Gloria's unselfishness inspires Diana McKune, a 19-year-old Seattle University student who has endured brain cancer her entire life. In an eerily similar tale, Diana, who met Gloria earlier this year, was rushed to the hospital last week after her pain became unmanageable.
She had to leave behind her kitten, whom she named Glow — Gloria's nickname.
A patient: Diana McKune
"I really believe in Gloria's miracle, and she has encouraged me. She's only 11, and the way she's handling things is more amazing than other people I've seen, probably myself included.
When you're talking about cancer, people will say, 'Oh, I understand.' But they don't. Sure, they can sort of relate if they've been really sick before. But with cancer, every day you're thinking, 'This could kill me.'
The last month or so, I can feel my faith getting stronger. I remember praying at Gloria's bed. I felt all the holiness in the room. It was really strong. I was holding this stone heart, and I could feel the heart beating in my hands. It was the weirdest thing. It was so amazing. It almost felt like I was holding Gloria.
So I got out of my wheelchair and prayed by Gloria's bed. I was aware all my bones were hurting, but I didn't really notice it. I was in my own world.
She'll always have a place in my heart. I'll never forget what she's taught me about life."
Gloria demands to meet with her doctors. She's found a bump under her arm. She needs a medical opinion. Now.
Once a meeting is arranged, Gloria pelts the doctors with questions. They answer them diplomatically. Several minutes later, she turns even bolder.
"Let's cut to the chase," Gloria says, about the new bump. "Is this cancer?" The doctors say it could be.
"OK, thank you," Gloria says.
Gloria came out of her coma Aug. 20 and was taken off the ventilator four days later. For about a week, no one discussed all the details of her condition, but now she understands both what she has endured and what she is facing. The knowledge has calmed her and refocused her.
"I ask now that you raise all of us," Gloria prays. "Not just me, but all of us. Let us all rise, rise up in a new and fresh way."
Jill Douglas prays for similar things. She holds her 17-month-old daughter, Alexis, who was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at 11 weeks. After 12 cycles of radiation, 10 bouts of chemotherapy and an eight-hour surgery to remove a tumor, the Douglas family was told in January that Alexis could have three to six months to live. Like Gloria, she has surpassed her forecast.
A mother: Jill Douglas
"I haven't met Gloria, but I would like to. I met Kristen and told her how much they've inspired us.
I'm amazed at Gloria's spirit. Kids I have met like Gloria, they're so special and unique. Why? It's almost like these children can reach more people. There's something about them.
Neuroblastoma is a nasty disease. It is a lonely, hard walk. When I think about Gloria and her family, I think, 'I've just had one year of this; what is four years of this like?'
A miracle can be an answer to prayer in any way. We don't know what the absolute miracle will be, if it will occur here or when she gets to go to heaven. Every day Alexis smiles and giggles and gets to play, it's a miracle. The precious time Gloria's had with her family since she woke up, it's a miracle.
Gloria is a face for children with this disease. They're not just, 'Oh, the kids with cancer.' They're Gloria. They're Alexis."
Jessica Morley, a 17-year-old friend who survived neuroblastoma as a baby, leans over Gloria and whispers to her.
"I want you to know I'm never giving up on this miracle," Jessica says. "I love you."
Doug calls Gloria "the most prayed-for child in the world." Bored one night, he does a Google search for her name and gazes at his screen, amazed at the thousands of Web sites that include pieces of her story.
"I've always said, since her cancer is terminal, this disease needs someone to beat it in the late stages and be a poster child," Doug says. "And she'd make a pretty poster."
People tell Gloria what a fitting name she has. Doug and Kristen were planning to name her Bridgette. A nurse even scribbled that name on a card. And then Dad cradled his little girl for the first time.
"Gloria," he called her.
Kristen cooed. Yes, that's it. Gloria!
"It was like God whispered in his ear," Kristen says.
God is still whispering, the family says. And Gloria is obeying.
"Lift us all," Gloria prays. "For any sickness or problems that we've had. Or for any bad things that we've done. Or for any new things that we need to do.
"Lift us all. And give us the strength to get down on our knees."
A stranger: Cliff Wagner
"I live in Falls Church, Va., but I lived in Kent for a while. I was drinking so heavily while I was there I couldn't work, so I came back home.
I've been sober since Aug. 27. I had a four-day bender, a super hangover, and I was shaking — common stuff for me. I go to The Seattle Times Web site a lot, and I was pissed because they kept showing Gloria's picture every day. But I was hung over, so I finally read it. It was like I was hit by a 2x4.
I haven't had another drink since. If she can put up with that cancer, I can put up with not drinking. I haven't even been tempted. It's a Gloria thing. She did it.
The main thing I'd like is for someone to go up to Gloria and tell her that this gruff, 51-year-old man said, 'Thanks, your strength tells me there's hope for me yet.' Every day, I have two meetings. One is AA. The other is a meeting I hold with myself and God. I've never been a man of action. But an epiphany occurred.
I couldn't stop crying for the longest time. Have you ever cried in your sleep? Neither have I until now."
Four years ago, after a cancer treatment, Gloria endured a side effect called mucositis. It caused mouth sores, and torturous discharges.
Doug could not handle seeing his daughter suffer. He prayed for an answer. He heard the words "quality of life."
He turned to Gloria, who was 7 then.
"Gloria?' he asked. "Have you had quality of life?"
Dad expected Gloria to be confused, but she quickly replied, "Look at how many people have come to God through me. Yeah, I've had quality of life."
Now she lies in bed with doctors circling her, a patient who has outlived dreary prognosis after dreary prognosis. And helped change the lives of many.
The doctors look at their patient and tell her she is amazing. Gloria seems too tired to communicate, but she responds.
She lifts her right arm, balls her hand into a fist and declares, "You've got to have strength."
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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