From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Drawing Out the Truth

A man wears a mask and his face grows to fit it.

George Orwell

It was my first month on the job as a Child Life Volunteer at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.

As a retired, forty-five-year-old dentist who was financially secure, I was also a cancer survivor from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, stage 3. When I, a computer-literate male, showed up, the volunteer department welcomed me with open arms.

In my third week, I met Darren, a thirteen-year-old kidney transplant patient who would be admitted many times over the next eighteen months. Darren was quite small for his age. He weighed about sixty pounds, was hearing impaired and was somewhat developmentally disabled.

Yet Darren had the biggest smile with eyes so huge they almost resembled a cartoon character.

When he’d see you coming, his expression would light up the room, and his arms would go out with all the energy his frail body could muster. He was literally a human magnet, and I connected with Darren in a nanosecond. No introductions were needed. Although he could be difficult, I knew this was the kid I was going to stick with.

My supervisor noted that while he was a sweet kid, he usually didn’t participate in group activities and would reject bedside projects with a resounding “NO!”

I purposely didn’t do the computer activity because it negated one-on-one contact. In the beginning, Darren completely ignored me. He was in pain as he was just coming off a procedure. So I started working my way into his life through his oldest brother, Brian, who was fifteen.

On my first visit, I noticed Brian’s hero of the week was the wrestler, Sting, who looked similar to the way that the members of the rock band KISS paint their faces. And every week, Brian would show up in a different T-shirt depicting a new “hero” of the World Wrestling Federation (WWF). So I knew if I started faking some knowledge about the characters in the WWF, I might be able to shoehorn my way into their acceptance.

On the advice of the volunteer coordinator—who thought I was “too fresh from the trenches” for the oncology floor—I hit Tower 5 armed with a basket of art materials. It contained coloring sheets, crayons and paints to work with patients ranging in age from two months to early twenties.

So one day, I said, “Let’s see who can paint the best Sting face mask.”

I picked up a few colors from my nontoxic liquid tempera paints and drew an oval outline for a face.

I asked, “What are Sting’s colors?” After some discussion, we decided to use red, black and white. I gave each of them sheets of paper and the Sting coloring contest began. I told them I would put their artwork up in the playroom so everyone could marvel at their drawings. A booming “Cool!” from Darren was my clue that ice was breaking.

The next few weeks were tortuous for Darren and his family. While his body was rejecting a second kidney transplant, his mother—who lived 150 miles away— learned she was pregnant, which meant fewer trips to Children’s Mercy.

Some weeks after I arrived, my supervisor put a star next to Darren’s name on the status report meaning “must see.” An ongoing game of curling into the fetal position, weeping into his pillow and then shooting me a wide grin when I least expected it kept me glued to his side for weeks on end. In fact, I didn’t see any other kids after a while. I would spend three to six hours a week just with Darren over an eight-month period. I even asked for additional days to spend with him, but they said I was getting too emotionally involved. And I was.

My wife was working full-time; my son was away at college; I never bonded with a pet; I was a cancer survivor; and I didn’t have to be a dentist with that “professional” bedside manner anymore. I just fell in love with Darren’s personality; he was a funny, funny kid. In return, he uncovered a childlike innocence that had been lurking inside me all these years.

One day, I came and the nurses told me Darren was “not doing very well.” They were prepping him for a biopsy, and he had been down all morning.

With a deep breath and a broad smile, I barged in as usual with a booming “What’s up, guys?” Darren turned and wrinkled his face at me. His mother patted his head, and the family was in a numbed trance.

The doctors came in with clipboards meaning “patient consent forms” and wanted to speak to the family in the conference room. There was some swelling in his spine, and they were going to take out some fatty tumor.

I told them I would stay with Darren until they returned. Darren was depressed and crying.

“I don’t want a biopsy,” he yelled.

I said, “Do you want to play a trick on the doctors?”

“Yeah, man!”

So I painted his face like Sting’s in red, black and white. With his war paint on, I then told him I’d put a tattoo on his little belly.

He held his bed sheet up and I worked “under cover” in case anyone showed up unexpectedly. Darren giggled as we worked quickly together. The tattoo I drew was a giant ZIPPER on his belly from top to bottom with lettering on his side and chest. We both blew on the paint and then covered him up just as the aides and doctors came strolling into the room.

Everyone laughed when they saw his painted face. They all thought that was the joke. While they wheeled Darren away on a stretcher, he had a triumphant smirk as he was anticipating the moment when the doctors and nurses lifted the sheet downstairs and saw a painted zipper defying all of them even more.

As his body rejected the second kidney transplant, Darren unfortunately went downhill from there. They even tried cord blood from his mother’s new baby and put him on drugs I had taken during my cancer treatment. But still, there was nothing more they could do and he later died. But Darren gave me something all volunteers crave: For a very, very discrete period, you can walk into someone’s life and make a difference.

After he passed away, I immediately flew to Philadelphia to see my own son. Darren also inspired me to get my certificate to teach inner-city, high-school students to try and recapture those step-by-step, inch-by-inch moments of sheer delight that the underserved and underdogs in life can give back so innocently and honestly to those who try to draw them out.

Nate Klarfeld

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