TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-ONE

From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

Twenty-One

The last golden rays of the afternoon sun filtered through the windows of Four West, the oncology wing of The Children’s Hospital in Denver. Walking down the hall, I could hear cartoons on televisions, Disney videos, a baby crying and the constant beeping of IV machines pumping cancer-killing drugs into the children’s veins.

Surely there must be something different and fun I can do with Danny to get his mind, and mine, off being sick, I thought. We had played at least a “zillion” games of Connect Four, knocked the Jenga tower over almost as often, and I didn’t even want to think about how many games of tic-tac-toe we had played.

Our son, Danny, was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of bone cancer. He was in the hospital for his tenth round of chemo. It took most of the day to slowly drip into his arm. What can I do to make the time pass faster? I asked myself again.

“All right, turkey, come on, get out of bed. Bring your IV pole. You’re wanted in the lounge.”

Who was this barging into Danny’s room? Couldn’t they see he was sick? My maternal protective defense mechanism was ready to do battle with this intruder.

Opening the door, the little old gray-haired lady, who could have been anyone’s grandmother, entered. Indeed, I learned that Miss Sally, a volunteer, viewed all of the children on the ward as her grandchildren. She seemed so petite and almost frail. Where did she get such a commanding voice? I wondered. Why does she see the need to use it on these poor sick children?

“Come on, Danny. Your buddies are waiting. There’s a hot game of Twenty-One going on in the teen lounge. They need you to join them.” Miss Sally didn’t give Danny a chance to protest. She ushered him out the door and down the hall they went, her pink jacket flapping in the breeze. Turning back to me, she added with a wink, “This is a ‘guys only’ game, but you can watch from the window.”

A group of ten- to twelve-year-olds had finished a round of pool and were starting a game of blackjack just as Danny arrived. As they sat around the table, Robby’s prized collection of baseball cards spilled around his feet. Joe described winning the midget car race last weekend. Danny told tales of tracking wild animals through the woods. Meanwhile, Jason (his friends called him the “Gambler”) raked in all the poker chips. He reigned as the undisputed Twenty-One Champion.

All the boys faced similar challenges as Danny. Robby had ALL (acute lymphocytic leukemia); Joe, Hodgkin’s disease; and Jason wore a patch over the eye he had lost to a neuroblastoma. Computerized IV pumps fed each of them a wide assortment of chemotherapeutic drugs. They sported the same hairdo—the “chemo cut.”

Miss Sally approached me in the hall. Laying her hand upon my shoulder, she apologized, “I hope you will forgive me for being so brusque back there.” Sighing deeply, she continued, “Sometimes you just have to ‘play the heavy’ to get these kids going. Once together, they start having fun. That somehow gives them the inner strength to fight their disease.”

Looking back into the lounge, I saw a group of once-active, tree-climbing boys suddenly thrust into a grownup world of facing a life-threatening illness chronicled with frightening tests, painful procedures, isolation from friends and arduous rehabilitation. Through the commanding efforts of Miss Sally, the “Pink Lady,” they were unconsciously learning to face their illnesses by playing games and having fun.

Most adults set boundaries on what is fun and what is not. Cancer and having fun are not compatible for many people on this planet. Miss Sally was teaching these boys how to boost their immune systems by making the most of their time together and overcoming their grueling circumstances by having fun.

I wish I could say my medical background equipped me to teach Danny and his friends about dealing with their illnesses. Far from it. Miss Sally touched my life. She taught me, a mother and registered nurse, more about life and dealing with illness than anything I studied in nursing school.

Today, twelve years later, Joe still races cars, and Danny just graduated from college with a degree in biology. Sadly, Robby and Jason never survived their illnesses.

Whenever I see a group of guys playing cards together, I think back over that scene in the teen lounge at The Children’s Hospital. Once again I hear Miss Sally proclaim, “Come on, turkey, get out of bed. There’s a hot game of Twenty-One going on in the teen lounge.”

Donna McDonnall

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