Paying it forward

(From left) Kathryn Carell Brown, co-chair of the Growing to New Heights Campaign, Natalie Chantal, Suzanne Sousan and John W. Brock III, surgeon-in-chief and Monroe Carell Jr. Professor. Photo by Anne Rayner.

Tristan Numbers was only 4 years old when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was 7 when he relapsed.

“I can’t describe how hard it is to have your 7-year-old little boy bald, skinny, sick,” said Natalie Chantal, Tristan’s mother. “You feel so helpless. You want to give him the world but you can’t.”

Tristan is now an active 13-year-old who enjoys playing with his friends, but the family will never forget his experience at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

“Tristan actually learned to write from the signs at the hospital,” Chantal recalled. “He was this little guy sitting in the hallways with his Magna Doodle copying ‘fire extinguisher’ and ‘exit.’ That’s how he learned to write his letters.”

The whole family pitched in while Tristan received treatment, including his grandmother, Suzanne Sousan.

“Tristan also was so brave throughout all his treatment,” said Sousan. “He even taught me how to text while he was getting a transfusion. Here he was hooked up to all these machines, and he was so patient with me.”

Tristan’s treatment also affected the whole family, including his younger sister, Naomi.

“Tristan was in the hospital again,” Chantal remembers, “and I was at home with Naomi. She started crying. I asked her what was wrong, and she said, ‘I’m scared Tristan isn’t going to come home from the hospital someday.’ She was only a child, but voiced concerns shared by everyone in the family.”

Having seen the need for Children’s Hospital firsthand, Chantal and Sousan wanted to support the hospital’s Growing to New Heights Campaign, a $40 million expansion effort that will allow the hospital to care for more children. The family pledged $1 million to the campaign through the Sacha Charitable Foundation, where Sousan serves as president.

“I know how critical this current expansion is for children and families,” said Sousan. “Tristan’s care team, especially the nurses, was fabulous. I think every one of them deserves a Nobel Prize. I want to help make sure more families get that kind of care.”

“Suzanne and Natalie’s support is vital to the Growing to New Heights Campaign and advancing our mission of discovery and healing by ensuring more children like Tristan have the finest in family-centered care. I am so thankful that they are partners in our efforts to care for the children who need us,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the Vanderbilt University Medical Center School of Medicine.

For Chantal, the family’s gift is an act of healing and remembrance. “I don’t want to forget that right now there are other kids, other families going through what we went through. I want to help make their experiences even better,” she said.

“I hate when people tell me that everything happens for a reason, but I do think that we make our own reasons. That’s what this gift is. And it’s something that I hope to teach Tristan as well as he grows up. I can’t tell him why cancer happened to him. What reason can you make for it? I want to teach him to take what was given to him—the good and the bad—and use it to make the world better.”

– by Becca Jensen