Children battling illness manage to uplift others

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 25, 1991|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Jennifer is beautiful. She's lying on her back on the bed, dressed in white, running her fingers languidly through her dark hair.

"You're a very pretty girl," I say.

"Thank you."

"How old are you?"

"Eight," she says.

"Are you married?" I ask.

Jennifer giggles. My heart melts. As we speak, a nurse in Sinai Hospital's pediatric unit is giving Jennifer some sort of anti-viral treatment. The little girl takes it in stride. In humanity's dogged attempts to beat back nature's darker instincts, she's a nonchalant veteran.

The treatment is for Jennifer's leukemia. It's one of a whole bunch of procedures Jennifer has gone through -- including a bone marrow transplant from her 5-year-old brother -- to battle this disease once thought automatically fatal but now completely curable for about 60 percent of those children afflicted by it.

"Are the doctors and nurses being nice to you?" I ask.

Jennifer rolls her eyes a little. Her nurse shoots her a mock-angry look that says theirs is more than just a nurse-patient relationship. A little smile spreads across Jennifer's face.

"I guess so," she says.

The children like Jennifer are heart-stopping. The rest of us complain about the heat or the cost of movie tickets or the tragedy of shopping mall parking. These kids go one-on-one with mortality and seem to take it in stride.

You want examples?

"We had one child eating pizza while getting chemotherapy," says Dr. Allen Schwartz, chairman of Sinai's department of pediatrics. He shakes his head at the memory. "Getting this drug that can make you sick as could be, and she's literally eating pizza while she's getting it."

You want more examples?

"Some parents," Schwartz says, "insist that we don't tell their kids what they've got. They don't want them to hear the word 'cancer,' the word 'leukemia.' We had one child beat leukemia, ++ and when she was completely cured her parents finally said, 'We want you to tell her what she had.'

"So I sat the girl down to tell her, and she said, 'Oh, I knew. I just

didn't want to upset my parents by letting them know that I knew."

You want more examples?

"We had a teen-age girl going to her prom," Schwartz says, "and she knew she wouldn't be surviving the next year. But it was still important for her to go to the prom, you know? And I remember her telling me, 'I know I'm going to die.' I said, 'We're gonna do our best to prove you wrong.'

"We couldn't save her. But what sticks in my memory is the last day she was here. She was going around and thanking everybody for taking care of her."

Most of us are lucky. We don't have to test our courage, or the resilience of our spirits, the way these kids do. Nature gives us a reasonable break before we grow old and the infirmities set in. But you look at these children, and you talk to their parents, and you think: How can anybody be so un-selfconsciously brave?

"You just do what you have to do," says the mother of a 5-year-old named Kenneth. Kenneth is sitting at a table in a sunny hospital playroom with another 5-year-old named Andrew. Andrew's hair is all gone, but he's got this pink band wrapped around his head that gives him a jaunty, athletic sort of look.

The two boys are spreading glue across a large piece of paper and then sprinkling bits of sparkly stars across it, oblivious to the health workers and the complex medical equipment around them.

"When he's strong, I'm strong," says Kenneth's mother. Her eyes go to the edge of brimming over, but she catches herself. Kenneth has been fighting this for a year now, and he's reached the point where he only comes in every few weeks for treatment.

Hope is slowly replacing automatic despair. The numbers slowly rise on recoveries. In the hallway now is Rae Miller Heneson, a hospital volunteer for the last 35 years. Her life is an embrace of these children.

In the hallway is a 6-year-old boy with his parents. The boy has been told he's finished getting treatments, he's healthy, he can go home. He spots the familiar Rae and runs down the hall to her.

"I'm all done," he cries, wrapping his little arms around her. "I can go home."

"Wonderful, darlin'," she says, hugging him back with one arm. With the other, she reaches into her pocketbook. She pulls out a bill and hands it to the boy, without looking at it. It says $10.

"Here," she says. "Go out and get drunk, kid."

Everybody in the hallway laughs. It's not just the joke about getting a drink, it's the sight of a kid who's gotten a second chance, it's a laugh in the face of darkness.

The odds are still tough, and the struggle is still intense. But it lifts the heart to walk through this unit and see children putting up the good fight.

"Whenever a child finishes treatment," Dr. Schwartz says, "we throw a pizza party here." He pats his belly gently.

"Lately," he says, "I've been getting pretty fat on pizza."

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