Ilse De Reze - A Touch of Heaven

One of our partners for which the theme of "Hope and Despair" has a great resonance is the Olivia Fund, a foundation that aims to improve the survival rates of children with cancer. The driving force behind this organisation, which prepares an annual gala concert in collaboration with the Belgian National Orchestra, is chairwoman Ilse De Reze.

For those who don’t know the Olivia Fund, how did this foundation come about and what exactly does it do?

In October 1999, my husband and I discovered that Olivia, our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, appeared to have a brain stem tumour. Stunned by despair and distraught, we began an intensive search for a cure. But science had no answer. Only KU Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) gave us a glimmer of hope. Promising research had been launched and could lead to a new therapy. However, funding for rapid development was lacking. Olivia died on 10 April 2000. Apart from immeasurable grief, we also felt outraged. How was it possible that a promising study had been shelved due to financial difficulties, resulting in the loss of a young, precious human life? We decided to create the Olivia Hendrickx Research Fund to continue to support this useful and promising cancer research. Today, we have extended our support to other interesting lines of research. In doing so, we follow all studies with great commitment and continue to keep our end goal: giving children a better chance in life.


How did you experience Olivia's period of illness?

Olivia's final months were a descent into hell. Quite literally too: the paediatric oncology department was one floor below ground level. To this day, that corridor is still etched on my memory. All the beds - there were too few of them - were filled with young children with cancer. Walking around there with your own child was like being pushed into an ocean of darkness. Do you give up at such a moment? Or do you keep on swimming? Finding the strength and hope not to drown was particularly difficult at that time. Rational arguments don't help you there. Especially when you feel that things will end badly. Despair is inevitable.


Where did you find the strength to take the path of hope afterwards?

Life goes on despite everything. For Olivia it was all 'too little, too late', but we found meaning in our efforts to give other children in the same situation better prospects of recovery. New therapies that give a glimmer of hope must be further developed to effectively save other children. The Olivia Fund gives researchers the resources to do this. Scientists must have the freedom to be able to explore all avenues, to get results through trial and error. This is how Olivia's life takes on a special meaning.


Do you manage to keep hope alive every day?

There is always hope. It’s the ‘flip side’ of despair. I experienced the worst: my child died in my arms. That is irreversible. It also makes you put everything into perspective. What is important in life? Where do you find hope? In the little things. Living and breathing. A cup of coffee that tastes good. Happiness, but different, is found in those little things and makes hope possible.


You have held an annual gala concert since 2001. How did that come about?

A gala concert is a good time to connect our donors with the researchers they support. Our first concert, which was a collaboration with Brussels Flanders Festival, dates from 2001. Gradually, we started collaborating with the Belgian National Orchestra. I really enjoy the concerts we organise together: it is the annual highlight of our operation. The atmosphere of solidarity between the people who support the fund and the people whose research is financed by the fund is wonderful. There is a higher purpose: hope for our sick children.


Can music help you cope with loss?

In rare moments – it really has tob e perfect - concerts strike the right chord with me. I feel Olivia close to me again. For a moment. A touch of heaven. Physically I no longer have her with me, but the spiritual connection remains. So music can be a bridge, a means of transport that brings you closer to the people you have lost.