A newsmaker you should know: Mother honors daughter's spirit with 5K race

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Leslie and Dan Geier of McCandless were part of Team in Training, a program with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for runners, when they learned their daughter had leukemia.

It was something they had never dreamed of. After all, their 13-year-old daughter, Elora, had already beaten medical odds. When she was 22 months old, Elora had been hit by a car. For months, she fought for her life, then for years she struggled with disabilities.

"She suffered a traumatic brain injury and it was touch and go for a long time," Mrs. Geier said.

But through it all, she never lost her wonderful spirit and good nature, according to Mrs. Geier. "Everyone could learn from Elora. She was the sweetest child ever."

The Geiers were set to participate in a marathon in Hawaii but they had to cancel the trip when they learned of Elora's diagnosis. For nine months, they helped care for their daughter.

In April 2006, Elora, a seventh-grader in the North Allegheny School District, died.

Running was something the Geiers had started doing to help give back to the community, a way to thank everyone who had helped them during Elora's long road back to health after her accident.

"Then one time we were talking about a race and Elora said, 'I want to race,' " Mrs. Geier said. After her parents discussed it, they decided to find an event for Elora.

"We thought she would hear the word 'no' her entire life, so we weren't going to tell her no, she couldn't be in a race," she said.

The family participated in the 5K race at St. Barnabas Health System in Richland.

They started the race an hour early, and finished well after everyone else.

"Every time someone would pass us, Elora would say, 'good job,' 'you are doing great.' Anyone else would have been embarrassed, but not her. She had a smile for everyone," Mrs. Geier said.

It was an event Karen Tabacchi, senior vice president at St. Barnabas, remembers well.

"We were starting to clean up and I saw this little girl with a bunch of people and I realized she was finishing the race," she said. Ms. Tabacchi learned of Elora's story from her father, Dan, a physical therapist himself.

"She was really struggling up the hill, but she wasn't giving up," Ms. Tabacchi said.

She went on to bring Elora up on stage so everyone could honor her efforts.

"The crowd just stood and started cheering. There wasn't a dry eye there," she said.

After Elora died, her family decided to honor her with a 5K event named after her. The "Elorapalozza" event was created, a 5K plus lots of fun family-centered activities. The eighth Elorapalooza will be held Sunday at the Boathouse in North Park. The proceeds benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Elora's Hope, a scholarship fund for students majoring in special education.

Elora's illness also changed her mother's career path. A family therapist for 25 years, Mrs. Geier went back to school the year after Elora died to become a registered nurse. "I needed a new challenge to put my energies into," Mrs. Geier said.

While on her rotations at the hospital as part of her training, she became interested in nursing on the blood cancer/bone marrow transplant floor at West Penn Hospital.

"I didn't plan on working in that area, but that is where I ended up. This is something I can really understand -- I know what they are going through. It is a great fit," she said.

Mrs. Geier said that sometimes the work is difficult and frustrating, but then she thinks of Elora.

"I take Elora with me. I remember how upbeat she was and think, 'I can do this,' " Mrs. Geier said.

Information: www.elorashope.com.


Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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