For one young girl, an iPod provided her with the opportunity to smile for the first time in months. Her life-threatening illness had robbed her body of the ability to communicate, but she could still find beauty and happiness through music. For another boy, fighting for his life meant leaving his family in Russia to seek treatment in the United States. With a netbook, he was able to see his father’s face for the first time in over one year via Skype. Such is the work of Mikey’s Way, a charity founded by the late Michael “Mikey” J. Friedman ’11 to provide electronic toys to children with cancer and other life threatening conditions. “The kids literally have nothing,” says Les Friedman, Mikey’s father and the current chief executive officer of Mikey’s Way. “The first casualty of cancer is the pocketbook. Most people cannot afford anything beyond the treatment.” Les knows the mental, physical, and financial challenges from his family’s own experience. When Mikey was diagnosed with cancer soon after his 15th birthday, his family “entered a whole other world.”
To combat his extremely rare and aggressive cancer, Mikey entered treatment that his doctors and nurses described as “the edge of death and back.” The chemotherapy was so toxic that he only survived thanks to stem cells extracted from his own bone marrow months earlier. “I’ll only say I was released twenty years later. Or was it one month? I cannot tell,” Mikey wrote after the experience, “but I did not know that the worst was yet to come.” Amidst the chemotherapy, radiation, and a failed liver, in what he called “the darkest depths of human circumstance,” Mikey decided to do more than just live. “People react differently when faced with the worst tragedies,” explained his father, “Mikey carried his entire family through the ordeal.” According to Mackenzie J. Lowry ’11, who befriended Mikey during pre-frosh weekend, he “deliberately lived life with a lot of kindness.” “He was optimistic, always optimistic,” said his roommate Mark A. Isaacson ’11.
Cancer has the power to rip apart lives and dreams; Mikey had the power to transform it into something else. While in remission, the Make-A-Wish Foundation offered him one wish. His family discussed vacations or buying something that he wanted, but Mikey wished for something grander. He gave his wish away, and used the money that Make-A-Wish would have spent on him to found Mikey’s Way. “I used to think that the question was ‘what would you do with one wish?’” explained his father, “but the real question is ‘what would you do if you knew you were going to die?’ Mikey knew that he was going to found this charity the day he relapsed.” What he did in the face of the relapse, said Lowry, “speaks so much to who he is. People think you aren’t going to make it soon. You can do one more big thing in your life, and he wanted to alleviate hospital boredom in others. The struggle, pain, and isolation that he felt was very real.” According to all who knew him, Mikey was brilliant and determined enough to cure cancer, but life was not going to provide him with the time. Having lived through not only the intense pain of his treatment but also the extreme boredom of daytime television and weeks in the hospital, he decided to alleviate the suffering of others. He found a purpose, and he lived it wholeheartedly.
Harvard gave Mikey the opportunity, in the words of his father, to “just be another kid.” He didn’t mention his struggle or his charity, and his blockmates and friends fell in love with his humor and optimism. Unlike his fellow students, he never complained about problem sets or exams, but instead “lived out his life’s purpose every single day” according to Lowry. One day four years ago this month, Mikey didn’t come home to his room in Kirkland. After four years of battling cancer, he lost. His purpose didn’t. His family decided to continue the mission of his charity, and they’ve helped over 2,500 children in 21 different hospitals use electronics to escape their illness and ease their suffering, but each trip is expensive. There are many worthy charities and missions to support, but few so close to this campus community.
At Harvard, institutional memory is so short. The undergraduates who knew Mikey have graduated and moved on, but not long ago an extraordinarily caring young man called this place home. He was too humble to advertise his charity, but to know of him is to be inspired. The question that Mikey faced, “what would you do if you knew you were going to die?” applies to all of us. His charity wasn’t his wish. It was his life.
Derek J. Bekebrede ’13 is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. You can learn more about Mikey’s Way by visiting mikeysway.org.