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President's best wishes as Leah's operation starts

Leah Xuereb is having the operation in Texas.

Leah Xuereb is having the operation in Texas.

Updated 4.40 p.m.

President George Abela today expressed his best wishes to three-year-old Leah Xuereb who is undergoing surgery to save her life at a specialised hospital in Texas, the only hope she has left after being struck down by a very rare form of stomach cancer.

President Abela expressed his wishes when he launched an auction of art works to raise funds for l-Istrina.

The operation started early this afternoon.

The toddler’s family has been through an excruciating 16 months of diagnosis and treatment, strung with moments of sadness and others of optimism. Now that the big day is here, her mother said she was deeply anxious but also thankful that Leah had made it to the only place in the world that can provide the treatment she needs.

“No matter how prepared you are, when the moment comes, it’s very difficult,” she said from the US yesterday.

“We’re very lucky to be here, that Leah is being given another chance and it’s all being done for her good, but it’s my baby...” her mother’s voice trailed off.

A very emotional Zhana Xuereb added that no one could guarantee the operation would be successful but it had worked on others, “so we hope and we pray.”

Leah’s complex operation at the Anderson Cancer Centre is expected to take some 10 hours.

Prayers were said for the young Gozitan at Ta' Pinu Sanctuary.

“I just wish I could close my eyes and open them tomorrow. I should be stronger but I keep thinking about what might happen before and after the operation,” Ms Xuereb said.

“It’s really good to be here, it’s just that I don’t know what to do – I want to comfort her but at the same time I don’t want her to know how big this thing is.”

Little Leah’s family left London for Texas on November 3 and tests have been carried out on her every day since in preparation for the operation.

On Saturday, the girl was taken to the animal zoo not far from the hospital. She could be heard giggling in the background as her mother spoke to The Times on the phone yesterday evening.

Leah had been receiving treatment for cancer at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. She was diagnosed with a yolk-sac tumour, a form of stomach cancer that can only be treated at Anderson Cancer Centre. No other hospital can provide the combination of localised chemotherapy and surgery that she needs.

The story of Leah has touched the hearts of thousands. She was healthy until she turned two and despite the high doses of chemotherapy and stem cell transplant, her disease progressed very fast.

But her Gozitan parents refused to give up and after applying for sponsorship from the Maltese Government, they decided to take matters into their own hands and start collecting funds for the expensive treatment.

The day her story was published in The Times, the Government came through with its reply to the application: it had decided to sponsor the €245,000 treatment.

Her aunt Josefa Xuereb said the Għajnsielem community, including Kindergarten students of the same age as Leah, will be gathering at the sanctuary for Mass at 9am.

“It’s been a very difficult time, especially for Leah’s grand-parents. Separation is cruel. When you have a problem, you can usually solve it, but illness does not vanish with the snap of your fingers,” she said.

Since she visited little Leah at Great Ormond she started appreciating life more, she said.

“After all I saw there, I wake up in the morning and everyday thank God that I’m still alive.”

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