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Life lessons from a children's cancer clinic playroom

Liberty Barnes“But isn’t it difficult?” people often ask me when they learn that I volunteer in the Hematology and Oncology (blood and cancer) Clinic at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.

“It’s so fun,” I blurt impulsively and then worry that I sound unfeeling about the time I spend with little cancer fighters.

Of course it is difficult to think about children battling life-threatening diseases. But that’s not my job. As a volunteer in the playroom (and in accordance with HIPAA privacy regulations), I have no access to patients’ medical records or information. Hospital staff does not share patients’ diagnoses, treatment plans, or prognoses with me. My job is to crack silly jokes, paint, build Legos, sculpt play-doh, and piece puzzles together.

On occasion my volunteer assignment is difficult, but in ways I would not have predicted. The telltale baldness of cancer treatments, common among kids in the clinic, does not faze me. But the triumphant moment when a giddy twelve-year-old girl rips off her winter hat and asks me to feel the impossibly soft inch of new growth on her head catches me off guard. I choke back tears, only to have them catch up with me on the drive home.

The atmosphere at Doernbecher is warm, soothing, even magical. My measly contribution of three weekly service hours has been immeasurably rewarding and chock full of humbling life lessons. Here I share two of those lessons, which I suspect are the key ingredients to Doernbecher’s warmth and sound principles for a richer life.

1: Play in the moment

We’ve all heard the popular wisdom to “live in the moment.” Don’t dwell on the past. Don’t fret about the future. Be present.

Personally, I struggle to live in this decade. I congratulate myself if I can live in the year. I worry about things far into the future. Living in the moment sounds stressful and high pressure, that it must require intense focus and attention.

Kids take a different approach: Play in the moment.

If you tell a three-year-old that the medicine pumping through the port in her chest might make her woozy or tired, she will play through the exhaustion until she collapses asleep in a pile of toys. Sometimes sick kids don’t act sick. They play.

Every Wednesday afternoon at one o’clock sharp, Jerry, a veteran volunteer, dons bunny ears, sits in front of a camera, and calls out bingo numbers from the playroom on the ninth floor at Doernbecher. Patients throughout the hospital watch the Bingo game broadcast in their rooms, bingo cards in hand, hoping to win a toy from the prize cart.

I watched nurses leap into action one otherwise peaceful Wednesday when the television system in the clinic quit working at 12:45 p.m. The charge nurse placed an urgent call to OHSU technical support. She hung up the phone, looked me in the eyes, and said in that low no-nonsense voice that all charge nurses have mastered, “I told them I was calling from the children’s hospital. I told them bingo starts soon. So, they know it’s important.”

Play is serious business at Doernbecher. I understand that play is a luxury afforded to patients, because loving adults do the hard work of providing continuous care. Nonetheless, these kids have taught me that stringing beads and coloring pictures centers us, grounds us, liberates us from the troublesome details of our pasts and futures, makes heavy things light, and connects us to the moment.

2. Treat everyone equally special

Doernbecher is home to a strange social experiment. Instead of treating all human beings as equals, they treat everyone equally extra-specially special. Everyone is in the first class cabin; there is no coach.

I had no doubts before I began volunteering that hospital patrons are treated with kindness and respect. I just did not expect to see so much kindness toward so many people. Even the healthy parents and siblings of patients are treated as special guests. Goodies and games and warm blankets are for everyone’s comfort.

I suppose I had it in my head that I would be able to detect the severity of patients’ conditions based on how well the hospital staff treated them, assuming that sicker patients would receive better treatment. But staff kindness is not allocated according to patient diagnoses or prognoses.

The Reverend John Watson wrote, "Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Presumably, it should be easy to apply this principle in a children’s hospital. However, patients present a variety of mild to severe conditions. Patient families represent a wide range of philosophies and practices related to parenting, family formation, social graces, communication styles, money, nutrition, education, politics, medicine, and so on. In other words, it would be easy for staff to judge some patients and some families as more deserving of special treatment.

As a sociologist, I am highly attuned to the ways that personal prejudices color everyday interactions between individuals and between institutions and individuals. My cynical heart has been softened by the respect staff show to each imperfect family’s unique challenges and healing journey.

There is a billboard advertisement for Doernbecher on Sunset Highway, which I pass each week on my way to the hospital. It reads, “Because every child deserves the best.” Before I began volunteering I thought the sign was cute, if not clichéd. Now I understand it as the guiding principle at Doernbecher.

Last week I saw the giddy twelve-year-old again. Her hair is now two inches long, dyed green and blue. As we painted, she impressed me with the scientific terms she used to describe the tubes and medication attached to her port. Thinking about the future, as I am wont to do, I said, “I bet you’re going to be a nurse or doctor when you grow up.”

“A nurse. Yeah, I’d like that,” she said, straightening her spine proudly, then paused and slouched again. “When I grow up I really just want to be a volunteer in the playroom like you.”

I laughed so I wouldn’t cry and we continued painting.

Liberty Barnes, Ph.D., is a sociologist and award-winning author. She lives in Hillsboro and volunteers at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, part of Oregon Health & Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland.