TORONTO – “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
When Tevye posed this rhetoric in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s doubtful the affable milkman was pondering Crohn’s Disease, an infirmity far too prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews.
According to researchers, Ashkenazim experience a higher occurrence of many diseases caused in whole or in part by genetic factors including Crohn’s and Tay-Sachs.
The frequency of Crohn’s – a disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract leading to abdominal pain, severe diarrhea and even malnutrition — in the general male population of the United States is about 2.4, compared to 7.2 per 100,000 among Ashkenazi males. Strangely, while the average frequency of Crohn’s in the U.S. female population is approximately 1.3 cases per 100,000, it is actually only one per 100,000 among Ashkenazi women.
One young man who knows all too well about the ravages of this devastating disease is 12-year-old Jewish Torontonian Aaron Maresky who, up to the age of seven, worried only about the results of the latest games involving his beloved Montreal Canadiens’ hockey team or Arsenal Football club.
Unfortunately, an illness as painful as Crohn’s takes a backseat to nothing.
“When I turned seven, I began getting some of the worst stomach aches I could have imagined; and this pain wasn’t the kind of pain kids get when they eat too many sweets,” says Maresky.
“I thought this was something much more serious than that. And hospitals are scary to most people, so you can imagine how scared I was at that young age. But, I knew that if I was ever going to find out what was going on, I had to do what I had to do. And the fact that my whole family was always with me, supporting me, it made things a lot easier. “
As fate would have it, the young Maresky was right about his stomach aches being something much more than too much candy and soda and after a two-week hospital stay, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s.
Despite experimenting with a veritable laundry list of medicines, doctors were unable to rid Maresky of his pain, and, during the course of three months when he was forced to miss school, and many of his friends, Maresky lost 30 pounds, a significant and scary amount for someone so young and small.
Finally, the doctors were able to find relief for Maresky’s almost constant suffering in the form of medicine which is administered every six to eight weeks by infusion. Of course, the relief does not come cheap at more than $40,000 a year; an exorbitant expense for the average family.
While Maresky knows he is fortunate that his family has insurance that takes care of the bills, he also felt a responsibility to help other youngsters, less fortunate than himself.
Demonstrating the compassion, vision and generosity normally associated with someone three times his age, Maresky, during his visits to the hospital for treatment, would regularly make small donations to make other sick youngsters feel better.
It was there that the light bulb over Maresky’s head switched on, telling him he was onto something.
“Once I started to feel a bit better, I recognized that I was incredibly fortunate that my family could afford the medication that was giving me relief from the pain,” he says.
“So, I began to wonder what happened to the kids whose families couldn’t afford to help them. Did they just live their lives feeling sick all the time? It didn’t seem fair to me that money determined who is sick all the time, and who gets better. So I figured I had to find a way to get money to those families, so that their kids could start feeling better, the way I had.”
And, with that realization, Aaron’s Apple was born.
‘It didn’t seem fair to me that money determined who is sick all the time’
The charity, which is registered under the auspices of Chai Lifeline Canada, has already raised over $400,000 and has helped 20 families gain access to unaffordable medications. On top of that, in 2012 alone, Aaron’s Apple donated $50,000 to the Aaron’s Apple Amenities Fund, administered by Toronto’s hospital for Sick Children’s Foundation.
“My parents raised me with Jewish values including tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” says Maresky. “I believe that by helping as many children as I can – Jews and non-Jews alike – Aaron’s Apple is making a difference.”
“We simply could not be prouder of Aaron,” says his mother Mandy. “You raise your children with the assumption that they will be strong and healthy, almost in denial that something bad might befall them.
“To say that our Aaron man has taught the rest of us some vital and transformative life lessons would be an understatement,” says Mandy. “When it comes to Aaron’s courage and tenacity, I am at a loss for words.”