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Schwartz: Event Featuring Islanders Alumni, Junior Islanders To Benefit 11-Year-Old Long Island Girl Battling Leukemia

By Peter Schwartz
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When the Islanders open up their opening-round playoff series against the Florida Panthers on Thursday, Oyster Bay's Olivia Hope LoRusso will be cheering on her favorite team as it begins its quest for the Stanley Cup.

"I love the Islanders," Olivia said in a phone conversation Saturday night while she was watching her favorite player, John Tavares, and company on television.

"I mean he's like amazing!" Olivia said of the captain.

John Tavares
Islanders center John Tavares (Photo courtesy of the LoRusso family)

That same TV will be tuned to games 1 and 2 against the Panthers on Thursday and Friday. That would be the television in her room at Winthrop University Hospital on Long Island, where she is undergoing chemotherapy for leukemia.

Olivia turned 11 years old on Jan. 17. On Feb. 7, she and her family were getting ready to go to church when her mom, Shelley, noticed that Olivia was speaking nasally and that the glands on the side of her neck were swollen.

The next day, Shelley took her daughter to the doctor to get it checked out. She figured her daughter had strep throat. The doctor conducted two different tests for strep.

"They found that it was a virus," said Shelley LoRusso.

During a cruise, Shelley saw that Olivia now had bumps on the back of her ears and on the back of her neck. A couple of days later, there were bruises all over her body.

The doctor aboard the ship said Olivia had tonsillitis. At this point, she was just not herself. She was lethargic and kept saying that she was tired and wanted to go home.

When the family returned home, Shelley brought Olivia back to her doctor, and the feeling was that Olivia might have mono. The doctor took some blood tests and said he would be in touch with the results. That night, the doctor called to say that it was leukemia and to go right to the emergency room.

As it turns out, Olivia was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of leukemia called AML, or acute myelogenous leukemia.

"You can't even believe what you're hearing," Shelley said. "I was numb. I begged him, crying, to please redo the tests and that this could not possibly be happening to us. I thought I was going to vomit."

The reality was that Olivia would have to undergo chemotherapy, but also needed medicine to make her feel better during the chemo. The problem was that the family's medical insurance didn't cover the medicine, and the first 30 days of medication would cost $4,500.

"Co-pays are one thing, but to not have anything with meds covered is going to be pretty overwhelming," said Olivia's father Rob LoRusso.

Also factor in that Rob's wife, Shelley, had to cut back on her work schedule in order to take care of Olivia.

Before her diagnosis, Olivia, along with her twin sister, Sabrina, and older sister, Gianna, was part of the skating program at Iceworks in Syosset, which is the Islanders' practice facility. (Olivia will find out this week if either of her sisters will be a match for a bone marrow transplant that she will need.)

The news of Olivia's illness hit the staff at Iceworks hard, and employees were trying to figure out a way to help.

"I didn't know what to do," said Valerie Murray, skating director at Iceworks. "I felt that we needed to raise funds for this family."

So she approached Islanders president and general manager Garth Snow to see if there was anything the organization could do. The idea was to hold a charity hockey game involving Islanders alumni.

"Garth said you do what you have to do," said Murray. "I'm 100 percent behind you."

This Saturday, there will be a charity hockey doubleheader at the Northwell Ice Center at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow. Tickets are $10, and donations can be made at the rink or by visiting

Doors will open at 3 p.m. At 4 p.m., there will be a youth hockey game with the Junior Islanders. That will be followed at 5 p.m. by a game pitting an Islanders alumni team including Miro Satan, Brian Mullen, Radek Martinek and Steve Webb against a team that includes WFAN morning host and former Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason.

There will also be raffles and a silent auction. If any money is left over after paying for Olivia's medical treatments, it will be donated to the Leukemia Research Foundation.

Flyer for Olivia Hope LoRusso benefit
Flyer for Olivia Hope LoRusso benefit

The entire family has been overwhelmed by the support for the event.

"It's been really incredible," said Rob LoRusso. "She's going to be very excited."

Olivia will be even more excited if she's able to attend the event. Right now, she's going through the second round of chemo and is expected to leave the hospital Saturday. If the doctors give the green light, she could make a cameo appearance.

"I'll probably get masked up and go for an hour and say hello to everyone," she said.

Throughout this ordeal, Olivia has had to spend most of her time at home or at the hospital. She hasn't been able to skate, but that hasn't stopped her from trying to live her life. Her attitude has been nothing short of amazing.

"She's been in good spirits the whole time throughout the whole thing,"Rob said. "She's been an inspiration to all of us."

So how does she do it? How does she maintain a positive outlook?

"There's no reason to have a bad attitude about it," said Olivia. "Even though cancer sucks, you have to try to get over it."

Olivia Hope LoRusso
Olivia Hope LoRusso (Photo courtesy of the LoRusso family)

Those are very mature words for an 11-year-old that is fighting through a rare disease.

On Saturday, Olivia's family, friends, skating community and hockey community will come together for what should be a very special event that is expected to raise a lot of money to help with medical bills.

And to have her favorite team involved just makes it that more special.

Don't forget to follow Pete on Twitter at @pschwartzcbsfan 

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