Katie Sorge and Erin Bishop never met before they both got sick last week. But within hours, the 10-year-old girls became fast friends and research partners hot on the trail of a cure for cancer.
They spent Thursday morning in a hospital bathroom concocting rare medicines from dissolved ink and aspirin. Their purple potions couldn't exactly be patented, but the fun in finding a "cure" for cancer caused them to forget their own aches and pains.
The girls were too sick to go to school. Their parents couldn't afford to miss work. So instead of watching television and snoozing at home, Katie and Erin played doctor and recuperated together at Harbor Hospital Center's specialized day-care center.
"I left Erin at home alone when she was sick once before. It was a disaster," recalled Deborah Bishop of Pasadena. "I ended up worrying about her all day."
When her daughter came down with an ear infection last week, Bishop avoided another harrowing day by bundling Erin up and taking her along to work. The solution was simple for Bishop, a 35-year-old single mother who works as a nurse at Harbor Hospital.
"I just couldn't miss any more work," she said. "The day-care center was a real blessing."
January is one of the busiest times for Harbor Hospital's day-care program for sick children, the only one in Maryland. During the prime cold and flu season, so many parents drop off sniffling children at the center that some have to be turned away.
The 3-year-oldprogram has grown rapidly in popularity among single parents and two-career couples in the Baltimore area, said Lisa Bender, director of the service for sick children. Parents from as far away as Annapolis and Owings Mills have come to rely on the service when their childrencan't go to school or their regular day-care program, she said.
Pointing to a towheaded 2-year-old, munching french fries and clutching a teddy bear, Bender said: "He's been coming here since he was a little, tiny kid in a car seat. It's really neat because we get to see them grow up."
The program is not cheap. But many parents are willing to pay $3 an hour to guarantee that their child is in safe hands. An equally big drawing card is that parents can drop off their children any time during the day, Monday through Friday, so they don't haveto abruptly leave work if their child comes down with a fever at noon.
Hospital employees receive a discount because the service originally was designed for them, said Dr. Shahid Aziz, director of pediatrics at Harbor Hospital. These days, more than half the parents who drop off sick children at the center work outside the hospital.
"The biggest asset for working parents is the peace of mind," he said. "They know their child is in the hands of professionals, in a medical community. If anything happens, their child is safe."
Decorated with stuffed dinosaurs and rainbow designs, the two-room center on the hospital's second floor has offered a refuge for children suffering from common colds to chicken pox, from measles to sinus infections.
Children usually are grouped by age, and those with contagious diseases are isolated from the rest. To prevent viruses from spreading, hospital workers also scrub down the walls, beds and even the dozens of toys and games each night.
"In the three years we've been here, we've never had any cross-over problems where someone caught another person's cold," Bender said.
A bubbly, energetic 33-year-old, who freely confesses she's "more like 5," Bender is so popular that some children have faked being sick to come back. She usually catches thembecause she remembers all the tricks.
"A little girl asked me once, 'How come you always know what we're going to do?' " she recalled. Giggling so hard she had to catch her breath, Bender added: "I said,'I used to be a kid, and I did that, too. AND, I did it better.' "
She also remembers what it feels like to be young and sick. At age 16, Bender nearly died in a car accident on College Parkway in Arnold. She broke her leg and pelvis, had more than 100 stitches and "finished up 11th grade in a wheelchair."
"It was a very scary experience," she said. "I was in the hospital for four weeks, and nobody wouldtell me what an IV was, or why they were sticking these tubes in me."
Bender now draws on those emotions to provide a lot of love and care for the sick children in her day-care program. Even at full capacity, when she is supervising 10 children, she clowns around and plays with them.
At the same time, she teaches them about hospitals, so they won't be as afraid if they're ever rushed to the emergency room.
"I explained to a little boy the other day what happens when they take blood," she said. "And all of his sudden, I could see his eyes light up, and it's like the greatest feeling in the wold. My heart just goes pitty pat."