By Deb Silverthorn
It’s been nearly a quarter-century since Malia Litman experienced any symptoms of multiple sclerosis and, thanks to the Hadassah Medical Organization in Israel, the Dallas resident is standing tall.
It was almost 18 years after her diagnosis that Litman became debilitated by the disease and, as the symptoms progressed, her world changed. From the outside, few people noticed her struggles, and she managed with weekly medications and injections she gave herself.
Then, in a short time, it became difficult, and then impossible, for her to walk on her own. “Think how organically you get in and out of bed, sit up from a chair or down onto the couch,” said Litman. “I was walking almost sideways and I couldn’t get in bed without intentionally picking up my weaker leg and putting it in the bed.”
Litman is just one of the more than 2.5 million people around the world who have multiple sclerosis; each week, more than 200 people are diagnosed with it in the United States.
She researched studies being conducted outside of Dallas, then outside of the United States, and was impressed with the stem cell studies of the Hadassah Medical Organization. While the study that seemed most appropriate for her condition required the patient live in-country, Litman was able to be treated on a compassionate care basis outside of the study.
In 2016, Litman began making quarterly visits to Israel for bone marrow extraction and infusions of the stem cells into her spinal cord, aiming to reset her immune system and regrow the sheaths around her nerves. Neither Litman nor her medical team knew what to expect, as each patient responds differently to the treatment.
Though her right leg was more affected by the disease than her left, after that first infusion Litman was able to get back into her bed without assistance. Together with her doctors, she cried.
“For any neurologist with a patient who’s lost function, and then you see them regain the abilities to move their fingers, their arms and legs — it’s really astonishing,” said Dr. Dimitrios Karussis, who leads Litman’s team at Hadassah. When the two were introduced, Litman had lost almost all ability to walk on her own.
“I’m very happy we’re at this stage, and these treatments, which have helped her and others in our study, will be one of the major tools to treat degenerative diseases of the brain and spinal cord and other neurological issues,” said Karussis, who was joined by Litman at a presentation at the 2016 Annual World Stem Cell Summit in Palm Beach, Florida. She also spoke at Hadassah’s 2017 Women’s Health Empowerment Summit in Washington, D.C.
For the next four years Litman had a standing appointment at Hadassah and after each treatment there were more encouraging responses, her symptoms lessening.
Then COVID-19 came.
Travel out of the United States was banned and Hadassah canceled all but life-saving treatment as it served COVID-19 patients almost exclusively.
Litman had previously improved to where she could walk up to 1,500 feet unassisted, but having missed 18 months of treatment, she was once again declining.
“It was an affirmation that the procedure was literally giving me life and letting me go on with my life,” said Litman, who returned to Hadassah last June, then in October. She will travel back again at the end of this month. “I’m again reaping the benefits and seeing improvement. I will be grateful all of my life.”
A Tulsa native, Litman is the daughter of Pat and Tom Connery, he of blessed memory; she is also the sister of Frank, Steve, Phil and Cindy. Her family also includes her husband, David, and her children Anna (Nick) Correa, Zachary (Gabby) and Katie (Aziz Yokubu); she is involved in the Dallas Chapter of Hadassah and wants to bring awareness to the important work being done by the organization.
“They are helping me and so many others suffering now, as well as future patients with this disease and many others,” said Litman, who will speak at the celebration of the Dallas Chapter of Hadassah’s 110th birthday on March 13 at Congregation Beth Torah.
Dr. Karussis is using the same stem cell treatments to help patients with ALS and other degenerative diseases. After meeting and being treated by Dr. Karussis, another Dallas resident, Derek Wood, now of blessed memory, found his life extended by two years beyond what any doctor had foreseen. Grateful for the time Dr. Karussis and Hadassah had given to him and his family, Wood hosted a fundraiser for the hospitals that raised more than $100,000.
“I’m amazed at how Hadassah, founded 110 years ago by Henrietta Szold, before women could vote, has evolved into this incredible organization. Its impact on the health and well-being of people around the world is nothing short of remarkable,” said Marjorie Rosenberg, Dallas Chapter of Hadassah president. “Malia is a perfect example of how the dedication of everyone involved at Hadassah, and the brilliant minds of the medical teams at Hadassah’s hospitals, come together to make miracles happen.”
Litman, who wanted to return the favor of good health, began volunteering at Children’s Medical Center Dallas. The former attorney at Thompson & Knight, political blogger and author of three books, Litman decorates herself and her travel scooter. Dressed up as the Queen of Hearts, Little Bo Peep and more, this true Wonder Woman paints her face, signs and life, bringing joy to others.
“The best treatment for me is to help others,” said Litman. “Smiles — you can’t beat ‘em.”
Getting stronger by the day thanks to the treatment and the prayers the Temple Emanu-El member never stops offering, Litman is grateful to have made her way around the dance floor at her son’s wedding two years ago. As she and Zachary held each other up — because they could, not because they had to — Ronan Keating sang “I hope you’ll dance.”