For the past two summers, I volunteered on the pediatric unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. Every one of the children captured my heart and working there truly changed my perspective on everything.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month, and because of my experience, I have learned about how underfunded childhood cancer truly is. Only 3.8 percent of government funding goes toward research for pediatric cancer, and the rest goes toward adult cancers, despite the fact 46 kids in the U.S. are diagnosed with cancer every day, and seven children in the U.S. die from cancer every day. Childhood cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of 15. So why is no one doing anything about it?
This past summer, I lost two precious angels, because they ran out of treatment options. People constantly ask me how sad it is working with pediatric cancer patients, but really the only sadness comes in times like these. Playing with children as young as 6 months old is incredibly rewarding. Being able to help them smile when they are so sad and in so much pain is not sad. The child life staff does a fabulous job of making a hospital stay as “normal” as possible for them. The walls are covered in bright colors, and the children are wheeled around in wagons and pink cars instead of wheelchairs. There is a sense of happiness surrounding the pediatric floor, despite the amount of suffering that is occurring. Of course, I can’t help but get emotional when one of the kids pass away, as I am human too, but it gives me comfort knowing that they are no longer in pain.
I’ve never met such sweet, generous, mature, and caring children than I did on the 9th floor. The children are wise beyond their years and continue to teach me lesson after lesson about my own life. One story that always gets me happened right after the Orlando shooting. I was in a little girl’s room making a craft with her and the TV was on in the background where the reporter was emphasizing the need for blood donations. She turns to me and says “I wish I could donate my blood to them so that everyone could be okay, but I don’t think my doctor will let me.” To hear a child fighting for her life, explain to me how she wanted to help save others, completely put me in a state of awe.
I’ve watched kids recover, and receive good news, but I’ve also seen the horror of what cancer can do to a perfectly healthy child; happy, walking, jumping, and singing one week, and the next unable to walk and introverted. I’ve seen families say goodbye, and I’ve seen families walk out cheering with the nurses. The hospital does a great job of explaining to the children the cancer terms in a kid-friendly way, but no toddler should have to know the words white blood count, red blood count, platelet, T-cells, B-Cells, Lymphocyte, and hemoglobin mean. No kid should have to worry about their blood cell counts when he or she can barely count to 10. The kids know how IV’s, CT scans, and MRI’s work, and have to keep their bodies completely still for hours while being scanned; a task that is a lot harder than it looks. These children and families could have gone to the doctor for something as simple as a headache or stomach ache, and returned with the diagnosis that no one wants to hear. These children can spend months in the hospitals, away from their families, away from their friends, away from their school, and away from their childhood.
I played doctor throughout my entire childhood, but thinking back, the only thing I ever really did was a “checkup.” The other day, while working in the outpatient playroom, a little girl asked if I wanted to play doctor. She pulled out her brand new american girl doll and doctors kit and walked over to the toy MRI machine. She told me that after she pressed the red button I should twist the yellow one twice. After doing so, she listened to the doll’s heart, took its blood presure, looked in its eyes and ears, listened to its “belly sounds,” and took its temperature. She then looked at me and said we have to operate and take out the bad cancer. She took the scissors and pretended to open up her stomach, “removed” what I would guess to be the tumor, and then proceeded to “stitch” her back up. I watched in awe, as a child, who should be learning her ABC’s and how to count to 10, did an entire medical procedure perfectly. This is her reality. This is thousands and thousands of kid’s everyday lives.
So, for this month of September, and even after, go gold. Skip the $5 coffee for a day and donate it to help children who would easily help you if they could. Children deserve more than 3.8 percent. Do something for the children who have done so much for me. For more information search the hastag #gogoldforpediatriccancer. Donate to an organization that gives 100 percent of donations toward helping pediatric cancer, such as the ones listed below.
We’ll be at UCLA tomorrow helping in the fight against pediatric cancer, and interviewing Giada De Laurentiis who is passionate about this cause. Check us out on Facebook (12:30-1 Pacific, 3:30-4, Eastern, September 10) to see our interview and learn how you can help.