the gift of TIME

For sick children in a Baltimore hospital, a visit from midshipmen means big smiles and new friends.

November 29, 2001|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,SUN STAFF

"I don't share," declares Midshipman 1st Class Jon McDivitt, but he is smiling as he cradles the infant closer.

His body rocks continuously, unconsciously, as he cuddles 3-month-old Kobe in the Johns Hopkins Children's Center.

It is 9:30 on a Saturday morning and, as one of the privileged seniors at the U.S. Naval Academy, McDivitt could be sleeping in. Instead, he is in a room with three crying infants. Each suffers from a different, terrible ailment, but all are in need of the same thing: human contact. Sometimes, McDivitt has one in each arm.

"All they need is a nice warm body," says the Albuquerque, N.M., native. "Sometimes I get to feed them a bottle. But most of the time, I just hold them the whole time I'm here."

He is one of about 24 midshipmen who spend Saturday mornings with young patients here - cuddling or coloring, playing Nintendo or pool, reading stories or playing board games. Only Fuzzy, the long-eared rabbit who lives in the fourth-floor playroom, is more popular.

"The presence they bring to the floor is a big plus," says child life specialist Marcy Humes, who has trained most of the midshipmen. "First, they are available on weekends, when most volunteers are not. And second, so many of them are male, and, face it, these kids are surrounded by women all the time."

The midshipman who coordinates "Project White Hat" just happens to be a woman. At 7:30 on this morning, Navy junior Erin McKenzie parked a rented van just outside the gates of the academy and mustered her troops for the ride to Baltimore. Over the rumble of the van engine, she explained why midshipmen, whose student life is enormously demanding, would give up a Saturday morning.

"We live in a bubble at the Naval Academy," says the Pittsburgh native.

"You could call it a cage," McDivitt pipes in from the seat behind her.

"Whatever," she fires back. "But this gets you out into the real world. And you see how tough other kids have it."

Midshipman Joseph Vo, the driver, parks the van beside the hospital, and the volunteers, in full uniform, head for the cafeteria. "The kids like the uniforms," says McKenzie with a self-conscious shrug. It is still early, and most of the children will still be asleep. There is time for a quick breakfast and some conversation.

"I've been volunteering in hospitals since I was 14," says McKenzie, "and I've spent plenty of time in hospitals myself. It seems like I was always getting injured. I was sort of a tomboy." Her father graduated from the Naval Academy, and her younger brother will be there next year.

"Anyway, it seems to me that there was always someone smiling at me, so that's what I try to do. To take their minds off the fact that they are in a hospital."

McKenzie sends her troops off to their floors and then reports to the medical-surgical unit for school-age kids. There, she checks in with Humes, the child life specialist, to see where she is needed most.

Her first assignment is to take Fuzzy, the rabbit, to visit 4-year-old A.J. Giudicy of St. Louis, who is confined to bed.

A.J. has had 17 surgeries to correct a congenital defect. During this, the family's first visit to Hopkins, surgeons successfully constructed a pelvis from bone grafts, returned A.J.'s bladder to the inside of his body and closed his abdomen for the first time in his short life.

A.J.'s grandmother, Nan Everett, a nursing supervisor herself, marvels at the presence of the midshipmen.

"We have never had anything like this before," she says.

From the day bed where she sleeps, Everett watches her grandchild playing Mario Cart, a video game, with McKenzie. For a moment, she seems to relax her vigilance. "I feel like I can actually leave the room for 10 minutes and walk around," she says.

Later, in the playroom on the medical-surgical unit, 10-year-old Liesl Winter gets to play the board game Sorry with a midshipman, and she can't believe her luck. Not only is she winning the game, but her 12-year-old brother, who is determined to go to the Naval Academy, will also arrive soon. Liesl plans to parade her new friend in front of brother and turn him green with envy.

Liesl appears too healthy to be here, and she is. A cancer survivor (since the age of 8 weeks), she is in the Children's Center only for a routine check-up.

"When Liesl was taking chemo, we would go to the Naval Academy with her, her twin brother and her older brother to play and have family picnics. It is beautiful there, but we also didn't have to worry about her being around crowds," says Liesl's mother, Mary Helen. "That was where we spent our private, family time. So my kids look up to midshipmen like they are gods."

A nurse at Hopkins as well as the parent of a child who has been in and out of the Children's Center for 10 years, Winter says the midshipmen give more than they know. "It might seem like all they are doing is playing games, but they give the parents a break. And sometimes the parents are as needy as the kids."

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