Childhood cancer patient

Angel Quevedo smiles when nurse Brenda Clagg stops by to check on him.

Editor's Note: September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. We sent Amy Orr to Jonathan Jaques Children's Cancer Institute to get the story from the inside.

A youngster pedaled a tricycle a top speed, braking abruptly in front of his friend and inviting him to play. The two boys laughed and joked through an open doorway.

Their happy interaction would have been normal, except it took place in the hall of the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology department of the Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Institute at MemorialCare Miller Children’s & Women’s Hospital.

Cancer is a serious disease, but the professionals at the Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Institute (JJCCI) work hard to create an upbeat and engaging environment for patients and families. Medical Director Dr. Jacqueline Casillas explained JJCCI’s holistic approach.

“We’re able to offer clinical trials to each child we care for; we can also provide essential needs to the patient, not just from the medical perspective, but also from the social and emotional perspective, which is critical in their care — speaking to that aspect for the whole child,” Casillas said. “This comprehensive care includes school reintegration services, sibling support groups, financial assistance and more care that is carried on from the point of admission through young adulthood."

At JJCCI, certified child life specialists like Allison Singhi make hospitalization a positive experience by organizing social activities. Some activities are large scale events, like an annual Beach Day (which basically brings the beach to the hospital), while others are more intimate, like movie viewings with popcorn and licorice. Child life specialists also reduce youngsters’ fear by helping them understand and prepare for their procedures.

Hanna Skane, a Child Life volunteer, helps Singhi befriend the children while she works on her Masters as a Child Life specialist.

“Helping the kids here made me realize that this is what I want to do professionally,” Skane said. “This program is small and personalized and we get to know our patients really well.”

JJCCI’s art therapists and music therapists allow patients to develop new skills during their stays. Laurel Terreri, a full-time board-certified music therapist, teaches guitar, piano, and ukulele to interested children and encourages them to perform onstage at weekly “Jammin’ Thursday” gatherings. Terreri also conducts bedside music therapy sessions, helping patients restore limb movement and regain speech through melodic intonation. In addition, she organizes volunteer musicians to fill walkways and playrooms with song.

Volunteer Bryanna Becerra, a second-year student at UCLA, spent time this summer playing the flute for young JJCCI patients.

“I love hanging out with children and seeing them smile,” she said.

Patients are drawn together by a somber reality, but smiles seem to be the common denominator at JJCCI. Thirteen-year-old Lizbeth Cortes went home after having a tumor removed in July, but had to return to the hospital when scans showed chemotherapy was needed. Lizbeth expressed gratitude that the doctors and nurses were helping her “kill all the things that escaped from my tumor.”

Lizbeth grinned in the art room, carefully crafting a beach scene with guidance from JJCCI resident artist Denise Clayton-Leonard. The teen also talked proudly about a painting she had made earlier in the day.

“Art is a distraction,” Clayton-Leonard said. “It lets patients take their mind off of what they’re going through so that they can just explore, experiment, and express themselves.”

After surgery, Angel Quevedo, a twelve-year-old with osteosarcoma, spent a month at JJCCI undergoing chemotherapy. The Franklin middle schooler said he loved creating jewelry during the art sessions, crafting bracelets for his aunt and little brother and a necklace for himself. Angel also enjoyed playing piano and video games during his stay, but said the nurses have been the best thing about his hospital stay.

“The nurses always come quickly and help me with anything I need,” Angel said. “Everybody here is really nice and they treat me really well.”

Nurse Brenda Clagg, grinned at his words.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but working here,” she said. “I get to meet amazing kids like Angel. They make it hard not to smile and laugh every day.”

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and JJCCI officials want to spark awareness with its Flames of Hope Project. To send these young patients a message of hope, go to www.millerchildrens.org/FlamesofHope.

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