CANTON — The impossibly cute letter to Santa Claus comes complete with the little girl’s own poignant — and heartbreaking — illustration.
She’s pleading for something few kids include in the list they mail to the North Pole: a crucial piece of herself, a pancreas — the critical body part that had long since failed her.
“I really hope you get this letter,’’ little Rose Gefteas, then just 9, wrote during the 2010 Christmas season, “because it could change my life forever.’’
At the bottom of that note, the little girl has drawn a star-topped Christmas tree and a self-portrait. Out of the smiling girl’s mouth, she didn’t need a spell-checker to convey the emotional payload of her request:
“I am like every body els. Thank you Santa.’’
Today, few people know that Santa Claus is real as fervently as does Rose Gefteas, now an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
She knows what he looks like, too.
He closely resembles her gifted doctors in Boston and Minnesota, who almost exactly a year ago gave her hope. And then saved her life.
He has the kindly spirit of her friends and teachers who cobbled together a solid, unfailing support network, making sure she never felt alone or afraid. Or staggered by despair.
He possesses the unqualified love of her family, parents and siblings who want what every family wants for those they love. Happiness and health. Safety and success.
“Weirdly, I wouldn’t trade what I went through for the world,’’ Rose told me the other day as we sat in the first-floor common room of her dormitory at UMass. “I think it’s made me who I am today.
“I look at life a lot differently now. I don’t know if it’s because of the pain I went through. But I appreciate the little things a lot more. I don’t really care about gifts. What matters is being with family and friends and having those moments together.
“Because I know what it’s like to not have that.’’
Rose was born in 2001, the second of Stephen and Gail Gefteas’s four children. They live in a handsome home on a cul-de-sac here. Both are 50. He is a manager at a label company. She teaches a literacy program at an elementary school in Hyde Park.
Baby Rose was a colicky kid. She would become quite the ham, the little girl who loved to dress up in her Cinderella outfit. The kid who pretended to be a TV network anchor, interviewing friends who played along with their high-spirited pal.
“When she wasn’t sick, she was perfect,’’ her father told me as we sat at the family kitchen table. “She led that perfect childhood. She played softball. She played soccer. She went to school. Tons of friends.’’
“The teachers always loved her,’’ her mother said. “She was one of the people who organized things. She did a ton of that in school.’’
She certainly did.
She was an honor student. She collected the Town of Canton’s Citizenship Award in 2018. She volunteered at Christmas in the City, Jake and Sparky Kennedy’s annual gesture of enormous generosity that is a holiday jewel. She volunteered at Rosie’s Place, which serves more than 12,000 local homeless and poor women each year.
And she was a four-year member of the Canton Character Crew, a group founded by teacher Ryan Gordy, which focuses on school culture and leadership.
“Rose came in and by senior year she was the face of the whole group,’’ Gordy told me. “Rose is the definition of that spark plug. She ignites the whole thing. She thrives on other people’s happiness.’’
And she often didn’t let on when her own happiness was elusive. When her pain was immobilizing, so severe she could not concentrate.
“She handled it like no other,’’ said Michaela Hannigan, a longtime friend and classmate. “She acted like she didn’t have anything wrong with her.’’
But something was wrong. Severely wrong.
It’s called pancreatitis.
And it’s life-changing.
“It was like a huge knot in your stomach,’’ Rose said, “as if someone would grab it. It was a twisting pain. A huge cramp that you cannot control. It goes on for hours. The pain would move from my stomach to my back. It would just take me out completely.’’
There were cycles of relief. “Those were good times,’’ she said. “But they didn’t last too long.’’
She missed lots of school. Her parents and siblings worried. The disease was part of her father’s family history. Stephen Gefteas has a form of the disease that is not active, unlike his brother — Rose’s uncle — who has a chronic form of it.
“You’re praying that this will subside and she’ll move on,’’ Rose’s father said. “Because we have had other relatives who had children with attacks and grew out of it.’’
Rose wasn’t so lucky.
Attacks that occurred every six to eight weeks when she was a kid sent her to the hospital for weeks at a time. As she grew, the attacks kept coming. And then kept coming more frequently.
Her family worried for Rose’s future. What about college? What about a career? Would she face life tethered to a feeding tube?
Soon, Rose and her parents found themselves in the office of Dr. Steve Freedman, director of the pancreas center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, who recommended the surgery that would change her life.
“We have a disease with terrible pain that is putting you in and out of the hospital,’’ Freedman told me, recounting his meeting with Rose and her parents. “Plus there’s a high risk of pancreatic cancer. It was the right time for a total pancreatectomy. We could stop these episodes. Plus she’s not going to have chronic pain.’’
And that conclusion is what brought Rose Gefteas and her family late last year to the doorstep of Dr. Melena Bellin and a large medical team at the University of Minnesota Medical Center.
Rose’s affliction is rare. Bellin’s center treats kids from across the United States. Since 1989, just about 150 kids there have had the surgery Rose endured.
It’s a long and complex procedure in which the pancreas is removed, broken down, and the insulin-producing cells — called islets — are isolated. Then the damaged portion of the pancreas is discarded and the islets are transplanted back into the patient.
“These kids who come to us, like Rose, are having to miss school, and it’s very difficult to successfully get through college and have a career and a family life,’’ Bellin said. “Patients say it’s life-changing.’’
That’s exactly what Rose called it the other day when I visited her at UMass.
When she got out of the hospital, she was greeted at her home here by a group of treasured friends who were her spiritual saviors during those long scary nights in Minnesota. She hugged her siblings, who worried about her and loved her.
Her parents never left her side. She knows they never will.
“I’m just thankful that I have so much potential now,’’ the college freshman said. “Before, I didn’t worry about it so much, but people had to worry about me. Now, everyone can relax.’’
And give thanks in this season of joy and light.
As her parents will this Christmastime.
“I would give thanks for meeting the right people and for the support of the whole community through this whole time,’’ her father said. “Just constant support.’’
“And a pain-free future for Rose,’’ Gail Gefteas said. “She can do anything she wants. She can live anywhere she wants now. Freedom. No pain.’’
In that 2010 letter to Santa, little Rose asked for something she still wants.
Something everybody wants.
“I also want for my family to be safe and healthy. If you could do those two things I would have the best Christmas ever.’’
Turns out the old, red-suited guy, with centuries of experience, knows how to deliver what really matters.
You don’t believe? Ask Rose.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FarragherTom.