XI'AN, China — Amanda de Lange, the "heart and soul" of the Starfish Foster Home, has thus far been all about fighting for abandoned children and helping those children find families as well as get badly needed medical care.
The South African, a former Brigham Young University grad and winner of the university's Service to Family Award in 2009, has been busy changing diapers, spooning food into tiny mouths and trying to raise enough money to keep the doors open of foster home, the central mission of the Starfish Children's Services that de Lange founded.
She hasn't had time to think much about herself.
But now, at 51, she's fighting to stay alive as uterine cancer threatens to cut short a life of unselfish service and good.
Abdominal pain sent her to the hospital in late January. After multiple tests and biopsies, it was determined she has stage 4 b endometrial cancer, a diagnosis verified by oncologists and specialists from around the world.
Her first 26 days of chemotherapy started on Feb. 8. A second round is scheduled to follow.
"The results of this first phase of treatment will be one of the key metrics used to determine if we stay the course in Xi'an or seek options elsewhere," Patrick McLaughlin, Starfish board president, wrote on the Starfish website. "Amanda's spirit has certainly been tested but she remains upbeat and periodically treats the staff to one of her spicy verbal bullets. That is music to the ears for all of us that have been on the receiving end of that personality trait."
In the meantime, the staff at the foster home is rallying to protect and carry on her work. The cupboards are stocked, the staff has been paid and the children are all right, he said.
Patrick Belnap has been asked to represent the foundation in Xi’an. Belnap is fluent in Mandarin, has spent more than six years in China, has family in Xi’an, has an educational pedigree well-suited to the situation and he knows de Lange very well.
Maria Teresa Graells (known as “Maria P”) is running the foster home, an enormous task given that she is a volunteer.
StarfishDirector of Communications Deborah Coffey and her husband, Greg, of St. Louis, Mo., have been helping to gather and communicate information.
In the past seven years, Starfish Children's Services has facilitated more than a hundred surgeries to correct birth defects and successfully arranged the adoption of dozens of young children.
On a shoestring budget and virtually begging for funds, de Lange taught herself how to run the orphanage, gaining official approval of the project from the Chinese government in September 2005 — approval that surprised her after she'd found an abandoned baby boy left to die and decided someone had to help.
Working up to 18 hours a day, de Lange has been a hands-on CEO. She lives at the orphanage, pays the rent and buys food, medicine, clothes and diapers with money solicited from people all over the world for "her babies."
She has no savings, no resources of her own and no medical insurance. Her cancer caught her by surprise and threatens to shut her down. But the news has friends and well-wishers from China flocking to her hospital with an outpouring of love and financial help for her, Coffey said. Friends have also made donations on the Starfish website.
"However, it may not totally cover all the costs as her treatment will be extensive," Coffey said.
It's probable that de Lange will need to travel to the United States for more extensive care.
More than $60,000 has been donated to the hospital by Chinese residents, officials and dignitaries, but this money is earmarked to keep the doors open. Another $25,000 has been donated to help with de Lange's medical costs.
McLaughlin said he speaks with de Lange every day and she sounds better every time.
"She is clearly aware of the efforts being made on her behalf regarding both her health and all things at the foster home.
"I have had frank discussions with Amanda about the serious nature of the cancer. She understands that the path to recovery will be full of ups and downs and she is willing to take it on," McLaughlin said. "Amanda spoke of the overwhelming support that has buoyed her spirits over the past four weeks. She also told me that she will stockpile all of the positive energy and use it to weather the tough days ahead."
Coffey added that "prayers are always welcome and fervently needed" and contributions can be made at thestarfishfosterhome.org.