Mom's 'really scary moment' led South Barrington sisters to launch charity for brain treatment
For Rhea and Ranya Sharma, creating a charity meant triumphing over their worst fears.
It all started around the holidays in 2017, with the most terrifying moment of their lives: their mother lying in a hospital bed at Amita St. Alexius Medical Center in Hoffman Estates, tubes coming out of her head.
Nupur Sharma had a subdural hematoma, a pooling of blood outside the brain, and needed emergency surgery. Her daughters, now a senior and a sophomore at Barrington High School, think it occurred when she accidentally banged her head while opening a car door.
"My sister and I didn't really know what was going on," Rhea said. "I think that image basically broke us. It was a really scary moment, and one that affected us deeply."
Doctors told them the surgery was successful. Still, a month later, their mother was back in the hospital with the same symptoms -- splitting headaches, dizziness, nausea -- and in need of another surgery.
She got it, and this time she recovered completely.
"The doctors (at St. Alexius) were really down-to-earth and really explained what the issue was," Rhea said. "I really appreciated that."
It took Rhea, 17, and Ranya, 15, a while to recover from the experience, too. As they did, they were struck by how lucky they'd been. Their mother was able to get the surgery she needed, twice. Insurance covered most of the costs. The family didn't go bankrupt from one bad health scare.
"Toward the end of 2018, when our mom was doing a lot better and our world was coming back together, we started just becoming more aware of all the blessings that we had," Ranya said.
With that in mind, the sisters in early 2019 formed Skulls & Drills. The nonprofit aims to help fund brain surgeries for people who need one but cannot afford it.
Their goal is to partner with doctors and hospitals around the world. To begin, they're targeting India and the U.S.
In the U.S., brain injuries cost about $76 billion annually in medical expenses. Traumatic brain injury is the primary cause of death and disability for children and young adults, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders.
More than 280,000 people were hospitalized with brain injuries in 2010, the last year for which Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made data available.
In India, traumatic brain injury is a major public health problem. More than 1 million people suffer serious head injuries every year, according to the Indian Head Injury Foundation.
Rhea and Ranya have been collaborating with Dr. Sonal Gupta, the director of neurosurgery at Fortis Hospital in New Delhi, to build a list of criteria for patients to receive assistance. The Sharmas said their story resonated with Gupta, who, after working in rural areas of India, had seen her share of traumatic brain injuries.
"We're getting actually near the end of that process and are getting ready to offer some aid," Ranya said.
They've raised about $3,000 so far. Their first fundraiser was at their graduation ceremony from Indian classical dance lessons. Their second fundraiser was a bake sale.
While it's been a challenge to run their own charity, Rhea said she drew inspiration from a philanthropy summer camp where she learned about the ways teenagers can make a difference. It taught her "to empathize with people who don't have as much as you," she said.
And Ranya said their mother has been a constant source of guidance and support.
When their mother was in the hospital, they were afraid to share their struggle with others. But "creating this nonprofit organization was being more open about what our family went through," Ranya said.
They hope to help families who are facing the same nightmare by getting what funds they have to deserving brain injury patients.
"I definitely think that experience with our mom impacted our plans for the future," Ranya said. "We want to expand Skulls & Drills even further ... just seeing it all become possible for those who need it."
"Hopefully as we grow we can extend to all areas of the world," Rhea said.
The sisters have started a GoFundMe campaign. More information is available at skullsanddrills.org.