When a Family's Struggle Goes Viral

Essay

Mother’s Love:  Hindy Poupko Galena holds her daughter, Ayelet, who died on January 31 after a battle with a bone marrow disease.
AYELETGALENA.TUMBLR.COM
Mother’s Love: Hindy Poupko Galena holds her daughter, Ayelet, who died on January 31 after a battle with a bone marrow disease.

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published February 07, 2012.
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When Seth and Hindy Poupko Galena asked readers of their Eye on Ayelet blog to say the Asher Yatzar blessing, I looked it up and, for the first time in my life, recited it — not after going to the bathroom, as is traditional, but in front of my computer. I’m not particularly observant. I didn’t know the Galenas’ daughter, to whom the prayer was directed. But I was inspired.

Ayelet Yakira Galena had become something of an Internet sensation. Each day, thousands of strangers checked in on the little girl, who suffered from a rare bone marrow disease, and whose kidneys were failing. After one post described Ayelet’s penchant for unwrapping plastic straws, dozens of strangers sent care packages containing straws to Ayelet’s hospital room.

Ayelet Galena
AYELETGALENA.TUMBLR.COM
Ayelet Galena

“As a Jewish mother, I check the blog/Facebook only for Ayelet stuff to hear about her steady good news. I worry almost like she were my own,” one devotee wrote in the comments section of the blog. “Proud to be part of the Ayelet Nation,” another wrote.

So when the Galenas, who are active in the Modern Orthodox community of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, announced Ayelet’s death, January 31, the news moved quickly through Jewish circles and set off a wave of mourning the world over. The reaction to the blog — and to the news its followers hoped never to hear — is emblematic of the ways that the Internet is redrawing boundaries between public and private, and upending traditional definitions of Jewish community.

“Ayelet created a community of people that felt bound not only to her, but also to each other,” Hindy Poupko Galena told the Forward. “And once you experience that feeling of community, you crave that feeling. The collective joy, the collective fear. They wanted to be part of her story.”

Watch videos of Ayelet

A January 27 post titled “You Can Be Addicted to a Certain Kind of Sadness” detailed the extent of Ayelet’s fan base: About 14,000 people were visiting the site daily, with many of them coming back for updates three or four more times before the day was through.

Poster advertising a bone marrow matching drive in Israel for Ayelet Galena.
Poster advertising a bone marrow matching drive in Israel for Ayelet Galena.

Ultimately, I don’t think it was sadness that had people hooked. It was hope, a sentiment that buoyed each entry, regardless of how grim the day. “The mantra is still slow and steady (hello extreme patience) so we are in no rush, and will keep Ayelet sedated on vent, so long as things with her lungs keep moving in the right direction,” the Galenas wrote nine days before Ayelet’s death.

Eye on Ayelet pulled back the veil on what it is like to be the parents of a critically ill child: the tests, the tubes, the fatigue, the need for comic relief, the celebration of small victories. (“She actually even peed a bit more today. Good news is visible from even the smallest drop of pee,” Seth Galena wrote in late January.)

“[Seth] never hid anything that was hard to hear, but he told her story in a way that allowed people to hear it at the same time,” said Poupko Galena, who is director of Israel and International Affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “People saw Ayelet at her best and at her worst.”

Indeed, pictures of the little girl accompanied posts on most days. In early photos and, occasionally videos, she was dressed in frilly frocks, sitting upright and playing with toys; in later ones, she was lying in a hospital bed, her face swollen, her eyes closed, her head nearly bald, her limbs marked up from months of IVs and the drawing of blood.


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