Samantha Surban 1/17/2006 - 2/10/2017


A letter from founder, Kathleen:

My life changed during the summer of 2013. I was at school in London at Central Saint Martins University, and my mentors asked me what my dream company would look like. For my final design presentation, I introduced a concept company called Grounded Kidswear, a co-ed fashion brand grounded in philanthropy. This idea was inspired by long days and nights working in a pediatric intensive care unit before deciding to take on fashion design... it was there I witnessed how important art was for every patient (and their families) fighting a serious illness. Soon enough, my career shifted from medicine to creativity, and the company I dreamt up in London eventually materialized.

I never could have predicted this, but 3 months after Grounded Kidswear launched, my life would change once again. In December 2015, I received news that my own cousin's daughter was diagnosed with leukemia and was being flown to be treated at UCLA, not far from where I lived. I visited them as soon as I could and when I walked into the hospital room, I immediately recognized my niece. Samantha was much smaller when I last saw her 6 years prior, I remember her being a tiny ball of energy that just could not be contained, with a contagious laugh. Here she was now, playing with a hairbrush in a little hospital gown, seemingly frustrated because her hair was starting to fall out from chemo treatment, and also because she probably didn't remember who I was. My cousin Mariejo tried to refresh her memory, "Sam, this is your Auntie Kathleen, she lived near us in Northern CA before we moved to Guam, remember..." She shrugged, so I sat down next to her. As the night went on, we talked and I learned that her birthday was approaching. At the top of her wishlist: ice cream sandwiches & a remote controlled car to drive around the hospital because she was starting to get bored of her toys.

Her 10th birthday party was eventful, despite her not getting out of the hospital bed. We granted her wishlist items, and laughed because her ice cream had fully melted by the time she remembered to eat it. Soon after her birthday, we managed to do a Grounded Kidswear fundraiser called "SAM WEEK" to help alleviate medical/living costs for Sam & her mom. The next few weeks turned into months, the trips to the hospital were frequent, and before our eyes our small warrior was growing up to be a young woman. Our conversations went from "what kind of toys do you like?" to "what outfit should I wear today?" Samantha began to ask her mom when I, her fashion auntie, would come back to visit and do her nails. When Sam was discharged, we celebrated by doing arts & crafts and trying on beanies & hats for her adorable new bald head. Most of the weeks she spent as an outpatient fighting cancer were full of joy & laughter... Other days she would be struggling to walk, crying in pain, and refusing to eat anything, not even ice cream. But whenever her mom called for me to help or babysit, I was there. One day we spent some solo auntie time together, when my cousin needed to run to the store and restock on home essentials & food for Sam. For the first time in months, she wasn't smiling. She was tired from chemo treatment and drowsy from the rest of her medication. I gently pushed her in a wheelchair to the kitchen, and I made her some instant mac & cheese because I knew she wouldn't have anything else. She didn't touch it for hours, but before I went home, she took a bite and said "oh, you make this really good Auntie Kathleen..." Finally a smile.

A couple months later, Sam's doctors concluded that she was having non-stop fevers because her cancer had returned. My cousin Mariejo fought even harder to keep Sam alive and happy, despite hearing all of this. (I don't know if I will ever have half the strength that this woman does.) Here they were, back at UCLA, and I asked "Sam, what are you doing back here? Must've really missed all of your nurses huh." She giggled and gave me another one of her shrugs. This new phase of chemo began and her mom explained that it would be the most difficult treatments she would undergo... but even in all that pain, they did not ever let me see them cry. Not once. In fact, I was the first to cry. One day at the hospital, we gathered around Sam and prayed with family members. We knew the reality of her disease, my cousin told me it was taking over her body. And as much as we still hoped for a miracle, time was running out. With my eyes closed in prayer, tears began rolling down my face, and I held Samantha's hand. I peeked my eyes open to look at her for a split second and she was looking right back at me. This day is burned into my memory, because even with an oxygen line in her nose and a swollen right side of her face, she smiled at me... yes, it was HER fighting for her life, but in that moment she was quietly trying to comfort ME. So I smiled back, kissed her on her feverish bald head and told her I loved her.

Samantha turned 11 on January 17th of this past year. Before her second annual birthday party at UCLA commenced, she whispered to me "I want to make this day fun, I don't want it to be boring..." And she did just that. I had never seen her so happy. Everyone in the room was beaming as we watched her open gifts, play with her brand new iPhone, sing happy birthday to herself, and tell us this was the best birthday. EVER. To be honest, I forgot reality for a moment. I convinced myself she was no longer fighting cancer and that I would see her grow stronger and taller, fitting into all the new outfits she received that day. Even a couple weeks later, I was convinced that I could leave to the Philippines and come back to bring her more gifts, more joy, more normalcy.

Unfortunately on my flight home from my trip, with tons of gifts packed in my luggage, I learned that Sam had peacefully passed away in her sleep. My heart broke and I struggled to understand why I didn't make it back in time, but found comfort knowing that the last thing I saw was her smile... so that's how I'll always remember her. All the tears I fought for 14 months finally came rushing down when I saw my cousin Mariejo for the first time without Samantha. Once again she was stronger than all of us combined, and to this day she has invited everyone to honor her beautiful daughter by simply loving life. 

I don't know how many times I visited Sam over 14 months of treatment, and I definitely didn't know that we would grow closer everyday. All the years I spent working alongside oncologists & children fighting cancer would have never prepared me for what I felt when we lost Sam. I thought my experience in the pediatric ICU gave me tough enough skin to handle this, but I was wrong. Samantha wasn't like anyone else, her mom always said her case was "a special one". And Sam was all of that and more. She loved everyone and everything. She taught all of us a thing or two about life. Even through my darkest days, she reminded me that everything was going to be okay, that life goes on even when it hurts and nothing makes sense. Everything I do now will be in her honor, and Grounded Kidswear will forever have purpose because of Sam. So we have her to thank... for her passion for art, creativity, and never-ending love for life.

Thank you Samantha, we will love & miss you forever.

1 comment

  • Marie Jo ( Samantha's mommy)

    This was beautifully written. I am flooded with tears because Sam and I will forever be grateful for you and all the others who provided us joyful memories throughout this 14 month journey. I love you. Thank you for inspiring Samantha with fashion and for being there for us.

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