When Sarah Saoud heads to the hospital to begin a month-long stay, at least one of her family’s problems already will be cured.
Sarah, 7, of Akron, is undergoing a stem cell transplant at Akron Children’s Hospital as the latest step in her ongoing battle against a form of cancer known as stage IV neuroblastoma.
If the Saouds needed to ride anywhere together, the family of six crammed into an aging five-seat vehicle. Sarah smashed into the backseat with her older brother and her two younger siblings in car seats. Not anymore.
Last week, Cleveland Car Pro Dealer affiliate Park Auto Group in Green, Ohio presented the Saouds with a seven-seat sport utility vehicle for free to replace their unreliable family car.
Mechanics from the dealership have offered to donate their time for any needed service over the next three years.
“I’m so excited,” said Sarah’s mom, Ikhlas. “I have this amazing car. It’s really nice. I appreciate everything that they did for us.”
Employees at the dealership gave about $6,000 plus hours of their time to buy and fix the silver 2006 Honda Pilot for the family after being told about its plight by a relative, said Tom Flory, managing partner of Park Auto Group. The vehicle would have retailed for about $10,000.
“A lot of the employees pitched in and paid for the vehicle,” he said. “The mechanics donated their time to make it perfect. We even had vendors pitch in to do some of the touch-up work. The company finished it off, but the employees did the majority of it.”
The Saouds had been driving a 9-year-old car with nearly 200,000 miles that constantly experienced mechanical problems.
Reliable transportation has become increasingly important since Sarah was diagnosed with cancer seven months ago. She already has endured surgery and six rounds of chemotherapy to try to remove and shrink the tumors throughout her body.
After her stem cell transplant this month, she’ll have radiation treatments, followed by a new maintenance medication that has been shown to improve two-year survival to between 40 percent and 60 percent, said Dr. John Fargo, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“The car will be huge,” he said. “Even when she’s not getting chemotherapy, she’s coming once or twice a week for blood count checks and things like that.”
Sarah’s father, Abe, said he had been trying to save money from his job at a local pizza shop to buy a larger vehicle for the family. He’s also a cancer survivor who battled his own lymphoma diagnosis in 2008.
His wife devotes her time to taking care of Sarah and her siblings: Yaqeen, 8; Yasmeen, 3; and Mohammad, 1.
The hospital had worked with Sarah’s Medicaid managed-care plan to arrange emergency transportation when the family car broke down, he said.
Abe Saoud’s aunt, Rebecca Shepard of Akron, decided to try to help by contacting local dealerships.
“One day in a parking lot of the hospital, Sarah saw a Honda Pilot and said to her dad, ‘That is a nice car, I wish we had a big car like that,’ ” Shepard wrote in a letter to several area businesses. Her wish broke her dad’s heart.
“If your dealership could consider donating or assisting with a 7-passenger vehicle, it would help Sarah and her family tremendously and put a smile on this little brave warrior’s face.”
After reading the email from Shepard, Flory immediately wanted to find a vehicle for the family.
“I shared it with our employees and our managers,” Flory said. “They just thought it was something they’d love to get behind and help out.”
Park employees applauded as Sarah and her family walked through the dealership. Along with the car, the Saouds received several gift cards and a cake with the words: “Stay strong. Be brave. From your friends at Park Auto Group.”
Sarah grinned as she climbed into the driver’s seat of the Pilot — decorated with a giant red bow on the hood — and honked the horn.
“We’re really grateful,” Sarah’s dad said. “It’s not every day somebody hears something and they respond to it. Rarely do people get up and say, ‘I’ve got the power to do something and I’m going to do it.”