In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made in Sarah McElheny's name to Make-A-Wish Illinois Chapter. Download a donation form and mail it to: Make-A-Wish Foundation of Illinois, 640 N. LaSalle Drive, Suite 280, Chicago, Illinois 60654 or make a gift online. Please indicate the donation is for the Illinois chapter.
Sarah McElheny, the Oak Lawn third-grader who had contracted West Nile virus over the summer while being treated for leukemia died Sunday night surrounded by the people she loved most.
The 8-year-old girl had been diagnosed in March with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and was responding well to chemo treatments when she contracted the mosquito-borne illness and slipped into a coma on Aug. 3.
In September, Sarah showed signs of improvement, sitting up in a chair and watching TV, and delighting in visitors even though she was unable to speak. She also started receiving chemo treatments again, which had been suspended while she fought off West Nile virus.
Last weekend,over $64,000 was raised at a "Smiles for Sarah" benefit held at 115 Bourbon Street in Merrionette Park. The benefit had been videotaped in the hopes that Sarah, who was too sick to attend, could watch it later. More than 1,000 well-wishers attended the fundraiser, many from Advocate Christ Medical Center where Sarah’s mother, Patti McElheny works as a respiratory therapist.
Patti and Sarah’s dad, Perry Austin, stopped going to work when their daughter took ill in order to remain by her bedside at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital.
Sarah’s aunts, Lynn Howard and Lorie McElheny, the family spokeswomen, said that Sarah had been making strides in her recovery when her health took a downward turn over the weekend.
“She had been improving,” Lorie McElheny said. “We got a call to go up to the hospital in the afternoon and stayed until she was gone. We’re just in shock. No one expected this.”
Sealed envelopes with letters to parents informing them of Sarah’s death were sent home with students at Columbus-Manor Elementary School on Monday afternoon, where Sarah had finished second grade last year.
The school district’s six social workers and school psychologist will meet with students at Columbus-Manor and Simmons Middle School on Tuesday morning, because of the many community members who were close to the family.
Ridgeland Dist. 122 Acting Superintendent Julie Shellberg said that because of the late hour many parents and children were unaware that Sarah had died shortly before midnight when showing up for school on Monday morning.
“The kids were not told,” Shellberg said. “We wanted to notify parents first and leave it up to parents to explain how they saw fit.”
Sarah was to have entered the third grade at Columbus Manor this fall. She loved going to Bible study classes and was a cheerleader for the Oak Lawn Outlaws youth football league. Last weekend the boys signed a pink jersey for Sarah and brought it to the benefit.
In addition to her parents, Sarah leaves two doting big brothers, Cody and Matthew McElheny; her grandmother, Elsie Austin; and many aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. She was preceded in death by her grandparents, Evangeline and Eugene McElheny, and Harold Austin.
Sarah’s body will lie in state from 3 to 9 p.m. Friday, Oct. 26, at Thompson & Kuenster Funeral Home, at 5570 W. 95th St., in Oak Lawn.
The funeral is on Saturday Oct. 27 from Thompson and Kuenster at 9 a.m. to St. Louis de Montfort Church, 8808 Ridgeland Ave., Oak Lawn, for mass at 10 a.m. Internment will be at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery. For more information about funeral arrangements, contact the funeral home at 708-425-0500.
Condolences may be left for the family on the Smiles for Sarah Facebook page. Patch will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.