Reigning Miss Jamaica World Gina Hargitay has a passion for kids.
The youngest of four children also has a 27-year-old brother and four-year-old nephew who suffer from sickle cell disease which is a life-threatening and hereditary blood disorder that causes malformation of red blood cells that become distorted when they transmit oxygen through the body.
Hargitay, 18, is therefore the perfect candidate to help promote the Caribbean SickKids Paediatric Cancer & Blood Disorders Project (CSPCBDP) which will help build health care capacity in Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and the Bahamas by training health care professionals, providing consultation and diagnostic expertise and developing and expanding access to treatment and supportive care.
She attended an event last week at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) centre to raise funds for the initiative.
“Just over a month ago, I had one of the most traumatic experiences in my life when I learned that my brother (Jamal Jaja) was in hospital in critical condition and fighting for his life after a serious crisis,” said Hargitay who has a taekwondo blue belt. “He’s OK now, but this occurrence put my role as the Sagicor Sigma Corporate Run ambassador into a totally new perspective.”
Part of the funds raised from this year’s five-kilometre run will go to the University of the West Indies sickle cell unit.
Jamaican-born Dr. Upton Allen, the CSPCBDP co-chair, said there is a huge gap in survival between children in Canada and those in the Caribbean suffering from cancer.
“If the average Canadian child is diagnosed with cancer, there is an 85 per cent chance of survival,” Allen, the division head of infectious diseases at The Hospital for Sick Children, said. “In other words, the odds are they will survive as opposed to die. If a Jamaican child or one somewhere in the Caribbean has a cancer, the odds are perhaps 50 per cent. In some countries, that percentage might be generous. This new project is aimed at eliminating that gap or at least narrowing it and I think this initiative is going to be doing exactly that. We will also be setting up a registry so that we can not only know what cancers and serious blood disorders exist, but the types of cancers, where they occur, how they occur and what are the risk factors that lead to the development of those cancers.”
A UWI graduate, Allen explained that the initiative is targeting a number of specific areas, including capacity building to train doctors to take care of sick children with cancers.
“We are also enhancing laboratory services so that we can diagnose cancers at a very early stage and even more we can better characterize the type of cancer so that we can more appropriately target treatment,” he said. “Why treat a cancer with the equivalent of a cannon when you can use a laser beam and target it? The cannon will cause a lot more collateral damage while the laser beam will more selectively take out the cancer. That is what the laboratory enhancement will do.
“But beyond that, we are setting up the infrastructure for tele-medicine support so that we will be in a position to be able to work with the doctors in the Caribbean and actually help them manage cases. This has already started to good effect. Furthermore, we want to do state-of-the-art research so that we can address questions as they arise and translate them into meaningful ways that we can improve the lives of children with cancers in the Caribbean. So we are looking at a transformational effect here as it relates to outcomes from all childhood cancers in the Caribbean.
“As someone who was born and raised in Jamaica, I know what it’s like for doctors in the Caribbean to be trying to cure children with cancers within the constraints of limited resources. Our job is to try to fix that and I believe, with your help, we can do exactly that.”
SickKids Foundation set out to raise $8 million by 2017 to support the initiative. The response has been overwhelming so far with nearly $7 million raised in just over a year.
The JCA, on behalf of the Jamaican community and its friends, made a $10,000 contribution to the project at last week’s event sponsored by Kisko, Canada’s largest freeze pop manufacturer owned by Jamaican immigrants.
“At SickKids, we are lucky to have a publicly-funded health care system where the 100,000 kids we see each year have the best care possible,” said Colin Hennigar, the SickKids Foundation associate director of major gifts. “But to fulfill our mandate, we need philanthropy to make that happen so that we can share our knowledge and help kids around the world. You are all making a tremendous effort to our fundraising efforts to help children not only in Jamaica but across the Caribbean.”
On her first visit to Canada, Hargitay – a vegetarian and dog lover who attended the fourth Pan African youth leadership summit in Senegal last December – was the guest of honour at the second annual Afro-Caribbean Cotillion Ball last Saturday night in Ottawa.
She beat out 24 contenders for the Miss Jamaica World title last July in Montego Bay.
Hargitay, who visited a few schools in the Greater Toronto Area and was a guest at the UWI Toronto Benefit Gala, said youths are the focus of her reign.
“Societies are judged on how we treat our most vulnerable and it’s my reasoning therefore that if I can somehow make even the smallest impact on young people in my country, then perhaps I could help uplift society as a whole,” said Hargitay who attended high school in England and is learning sign language. “In addition, our youth are the future and the leaders of tomorrow which is coming up faster than many may seem to realize. The world, as I see it today, is in a state of moral decay and the only solution as I see it is the next generation who will define the success or failure of the world.”
McGill University is on Hargitay’s radar for post-secondary education.
Marlene Campbell-Hargitay, who accompanied her daughter on the trip, said the beauty queen will make a decision next month.