TARANTO — It’s a sunny summer afternoon and children are running along the beaches of this coastal city in southeastern Italy. But on the other side of town, it’s a different picture, as chimneys at the ILVA plant, Europe's largest steel producer, emit toxic smoke from a concrete wasteland. 

The tragic reality for families in and around Taranto is that the playmates of many children here are not on the beaches, but the clowns in hospitals who try to cheer them up in the hopes that they will recover from the various cancers afflicting them. 

There isn’t a pediatric hematology department in the local hospital. Those who can’t make it to the children’s hospital in Rome for chemotherapy must rely on the generosity of the head of the local hospital’s hematology unit, Patrizio Mazza, who together with social services has set up a room for the youngsters between the adult patients. These children don’t have enough room on their arms because of all the drips, so catheters are inserted in their chests instead. 

Ambra, Michele and Luca — 4, 10 and 12, respectively — tell me stories about the masks they wore to school on the few days that they were able to leave the ward and attend classes. They tell me about their fantasies and dreams and any other thoughts they immerse themselves in so they don’t think about dying: a trip to the beach, the courage to fight against a treacherous enemy. They look at me with their eyes wide open, alert, and I wonder where they find the strength to be so curious about everything.  

“We’ve been helping children, as well as adults, for more than 50 years now,” pediatrician Roberto Brundisini says. “They are sick and they die because of the toxins in the area. Do we have to wait until the Institute of Health lets the politicians know that people in Taranto are dying because of ILVA?"

In 1976 there was an industrial accident in Seveso, north of Milan, which led to new regulations for dealing with toxic emissions. "But nothing like that has happened in Puglia, even though the levels from Ilva are twice that those in Seveso ever were,” says Brundisini.

Still dreaming

Luca has been battling leukemia since the age of four. The now 12-year-old has fought it off twice, the second time requiring a bone marrow transplant.

“For the first time recently, after so many years, we were finally able to go to the beach,” his father Paolo Mastromarino says. “When Luca was seven, he was in and out of the Bambino Gesù children’s hospital in Rome all the time. Sometimes he was there for three to four months, but once we were there for a full year. Can you imagine how that feels for a child?”

Rome's Bambino Gesu children hospital — Photo: MarteN253/GFDL

Luca’s dream is to play for a volleyball team, but he knows he won’t be able to so he has settled for archery. He gets his homework sent to him from his nice classmate Alessia via Facebook when he’s in the hospital, but if he’s at home in Taranto, though it’s rare, she brings it to him.

Ambra’s parents are unemployed, and they can’t afford to have their 4-year-old brought to a specialized pediatric hospital. “Fortunately, thanks to Dr. Mazza, they are treating her here,” says her mother Chiara, 32. “Ambra has been sick since she was just a few months old, but we only discovered it was leukemia in February. She pretends that she’s a doctor when she plays with her dolls. She wants to take care of sick children just like her.”

When Ambra is allowed to go home, she is assisted by volunteers from the local branch of AIL (The Italian Association of Leukemia and Lymphoma). Association president Paola D’Andra has cared tirelessly for the children of the area and their families. “We have a team who entertain the kids,” she explains, “as well as doctors, nurses and psychologists who deal with their treatment and help with any difficulties parents and siblings might also have. We have protested against ILVA’s pollution for years, but so far nobody has listened. What do we have to do for people to pay attention to our children?”

Michele, 10, suffers from cancer of the pharynx which, tragically, “not even the hardest adult smoker would get.” AIL does everything it can to lighten the burden for these children, and the latest project was a regatta on the sea. Attended by all those who could get out of bed, “Dreaming of Ithaca” was a unique opportunity and unforgettable for many of the patients.

“Even for Luca,” says his father. “It was enough to just look at the smile on his face in those photos. What can I say? Going forward isn’t easy because relapses are always around the corner.”

Luca isn’t giving up though, and he’s betting on playing a volleyball game soon.