Despite 14 chemotherapy treatments, two surgeries and a stem cell transplant, Allison Rogers has mostly positive memories of her fight with cancer, thanks to a little help from some Friends.
For 40 years, the Friends of Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt has understood how to turn scary hospital visits into happier memories. In Allison’s case, it’s the pink poodle named Sparkles that she won at the Friends-sponsored Pizza and Bingo Night and spending a lot of time in the playroom stocked with toys. For other patients, it’s music therapy, throwing pennies in the hospital’s garden fish pond or enjoying a free hot meal with their family.
The Friends organization recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and over four decades of being committed to fundraising, community awareness, and supporting the patients and families of Children’s Hospital through a variety of activities and programs. The group has a fierce commitment to creating a child-friendly environment and making the hospital feel more like home.
In 2005 at age 6, Allison was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a bone cancer, in her left femur. Over a year, she had multiple chemotherapy treatments, lasting three to five inpatient days, plus limb-sparing surgery to replace four inches of bone with donor bone. In 2008, the cancer came back and Allison needed a stem cell transplant, which required 23 straight days in the hospital, more outpatient chemotherapy treatments, 28 radiation treatments and another surgery to replace her bone with metal from above her knee to the hip joint.
Her mother, Lori Rogers, remembers the Friends-sponsored Thanksgiving meal for families in the hospital,
and how all the Friends activities helped take their minds off Allison’s illness.
“People would ask us why we had to be in the hospital on Thanksgiving, but when you’re dealing with something like this, you don’t have a choice,” Rogers said. “You make the best of it that you can. We did all of the activities and that helped a lot. You can forget what is happening for a little while.”
Now Allison is a typical 13-year-old – the eighth-grade captain of the football cheerleading squad at her school in Smithville, Tenn., who loves to shop and spend the night with her girlfriends.
She’s also a published artist. For the past five years, Allison has lent her skills to the Holiday Project, an annual Friends fundraiser, and one of its oldest, that has raised more than $1 million since its inception.
Her designs include a gingerbread house, inspired by a real one she decorated, a snowman in a red scarf and jaunty top hat, and this year, a Santa with bright blue eyes. These drawings, along with others created by patients and their siblings, adorn holiday cards, gift tags, wrapping paper, and tins of cookies and coffee, and all proceeds benefit Children’s Hospital.
She draws new Holiday Project art each year, because she likes drawing and also because she knows how important the Friends organization is and wants to help other patients and their families have the same happy memories.
A ‘woman’s touch’
Before they were Friends, they were renegades.
In 1971, a group of women created an ad hoc committee to organize fundraising for the Children’s Regional Medical Center, as the Children’s Hospital was known at that time. They also wanted to bring a “woman’s touch” to the pediatric ward and make the space more inviting for children and families. The eight founders wrote a set of bylaws for the group and hoped no higher-ups would notice they had no legal standing. They were passionate about their idea and determined to make it work.
They first focused on awareness, understanding that few in the community recognized the need to support pediatric care. They convinced the Board to rename the Children’s Regional Medical Center the Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University, and one member, Carole Nelson, sketched two stick figures holding hands, creating the design that would become the red paper dolls logo.
Nelson was the treasurer and pulled out the only scrap paper she had, a deposit slip, to show her idea.
“I tried to put a skirt on one to make a little girl but it didn’t work, so I pulled out another deposit slip and drew just the figures again. I originally wanted it to be a little boy and girl side by side, but I’m not an artist,” she joked.
Nelson also had the idea for the Holiday Project after running out of gift tags just before Christmas and heading to Moon Drug Store to buy more.
“It was $5 for just a few tags, and I said I’m never paying that again. I went into the next meeting and said, ‘Why don’t we have tags drawn by the children?’”
Seeing her contributions still going delights Nelson, although she insists they are small ideas that others expanded.
“I think in 100 years we will still be going strong,” she said. “The need is there, the wisdom of the hospital leaders is there, and the commitment of Friends is not going away. Forty years is just a drop in the bucket. I look forward to celebrating 50, and if I’m still around, 60 years.”
Once Friends was officially chartered in 1972 with 125 founding members, their reputation as outlaws continued as they battled with hospital administration for space and amenities to make the pediatric wards feel more like home. The Friends understood before anyone else the concept of patient- and family-centered care.
“We were young and eager to ease the hospital experience of children and their parents,” said Libby Werthan, an original Friends founder and the group’s first president. “In the beginning we mainly wanted to make the dismal ward into a more welcoming, child-friendly place. We thought we could raise enough money to do simple things that would make a big difference.”
They wrangled two designated rooms in the Emergency Department and put up colorful wallpaper to make them more inviting, and they created a designated playroom where no medical procedures could be performed. They fought for telephones and recliners in patient rooms, amenities unheard of at the time.
In the ’70s, neonatal transport was greatly improving outcomes for premature babies born in outlying areas, but Nelson remembers being approached by a neonatal nurse about an unforeseen problem. The babies were taken immediately after birth and the mothers were too poor or sick to make the journey to visit, so the parent-child connection was extremely strained. Friends gathered a few hundred dollars to purchase several Polaroid
cameras and help mothers bond with their babies through photos of their progress.
“Our steps were tiny steps in the beginning, but we were tenacious,” said Nelson, who served as a Friends treasurer and president.
Werthan said that never in their wildest dreams did the founders envision the scope and impact that Friends has achieved.
“To see this little embryo of an idea become a full-fledged healthy and vital adult, well, it is every founder’s dream come true,” Werthan said.
Current Friends president Carolyn Thombs takes a lot of inspiration from the early members of the group.
“To reach 40 years and still be evolving and growing is amazing to me,” said Thombs, who became active in Friends in 2002. “When I was asked to be a leader, it felt like such an honor. The members who have stood where I have stood now are people who created and ran an organization that changes lives. So much of what they started still continues today, and we still have the same mission that they did.”
Thombs’ mother, Peggy Palmer, was a Friends officer in the early years, and Thombs remembers tagging along with her sisters to meetings and service projects. Now her two boys (Palmer, 13, and Stanford, 10) are carrying on the tradition, collecting coins for the Change Bandits fundraiser and drawing for the Holiday Project. Palmer led a drive at his school to collect Halloween costumes for patients to wear.
“They’ve been patients in the hospital, luckily nothing serious, but we have certainly spent our time there for broken bones and stitches and sicknesses. We’re so grateful that we have this wonderful hospital in our community and want to support it in every way possible,” Thombs said.
The ‘extra touches’
Friends is open to anyone and has more than 3,000 members in 30 states, giving more than 3,500 volunteer hours annually.
“The name says it all. We’re friends of the hospital and friends of each other. It’s a powerful, strong, impactful group of volunteers,” Thombs said.
The impact is staggering as the list of projects and donations and events rolls on. The signature annual fundraisers, the Holiday Project and Friends & Fashion (in which patients and professional models walk the runway), collectively raise $200,000 each year. More than 11,000 meals were served last year through the organization’s monthly Family Dinner Night and weekly Lunch Bunch, a lunch for families in the hospital. Pizza and Bingo Night is a huge hit, and closed-circuit television was added recently so patients who couldn’t leave their rooms could still play. Friends help with the Children’s Miracle Network Radiothon and Telethon each year, host staff appreciation events, hold an annual Fourth of July party and help organize and fund the “Time for Remembering” memorial service for families to honor loved ones who had passed.
The Friends’ Children’s Services Committee evaluates proposals for departmental needs not covered in their operating budget. In the past, they have funded colorful lights for the ceiling in the diagnostic area and Spanish-speaking toys in waiting areas.
“The hospital leaders know that we can make a difference, and if they need something, they can ask for our help and we find a way to do it,” Thombs said. “One year they said music therapy was something important, so we supported that program close to $100,000. One year, we helped with the purchase of a pediatric ambulance.”
Stephanie Van Dyke, director of Volunteer Services at Children’s Hospital, said Friends always provides the “extra touches.”
“Patients and families expect good medical care, that’s why they’re here, but they don’t expect a catered dinner or free Bingo game. Those are the extra touches that help create an environment of healing, not just for the child but for the whole family,” Van Dyke said.
She never hesitates to make a request to the group.
“They’re never burdened by my requests. They look forward to them and want to know what is needed in the hospital. These are ladies and gentlemen who are already loyal to our mission and are looking for moments to be active to help us accomplish our goals,” Van Dyke said.
“If they can’t fund a particular thing, they think about other groups they are involved in that may be able to help. They’re wonderful connectors and liaisons in the community. When they go out and tell our story, it brings so many more volunteers to the table.”
Friends member Elizabeth Doolittle is in charge of monthly patient special events, which can be a themed holiday party, a visit by a magician or a pep rally with Vanderbilt athletes, cheerleaders and marching band.
She is a nurse practitioner, but said she never had a real hospital experience until her son, Jake, suffered a traumatic brain injury at 15 months when a TV fell on him. He spent three weeks at Children’s Hospital and five in rehab, and makes frequent visits for follow-up care.
“After his accident, I saw how little things make a huge difference, like the resources Child Life has or the way the waiting rooms are equipped,” Doolittle said.
“I now know that all of these things are not part of the operating budget. The DVD player your child is given to use in the ER waiting room is not part of your bill. It takes volunteers and donations to make that happen.”
She now understands what a bright spot one of these events can be during a long hospital stay.“When you’re here for weeks, that’s a long time to make a hospital your home. A lot of the patients can’t even go outside, so we do anything to bring a little life into their day.”
Doolittle said Friends fits perfectly with her passions of health care and children.
“I feel that we’re all a part of this community and it’s our duty to make it a better place, whatever our passion is. Whatever I can do for my child or for other children, I want the hospital to be the best.”
–written by Leslie Hill