It’s a big place. Lots of rooms. Beeping medical machines. Doctors with charts. The pediatric oncology ward is decorated with plastic holly and greenery for the season. Loud TVs in the kids’ rooms play various holiday movies.
There are some great kids here.
Like 6-year-old Jessie, who just wants to sing. It’s her mission in life. To sing. Ask her what she wants to be when she grows up. “A singer,” she tells the nurses. Cancer has not robbed this child of her song.
The nurses say that life in this ward has been hard since COVID. The virus adds to everyone’s stress. The new protocols, the extra personal protective gear, the beefed up preventative measures. All these kids have compromised immune systems, and this is a global pandemic.
But nurses and doctors are careful not to talk too much about pandemic-related headlines. Not here. There’s no need.
“These families have enough junk to deal with,” says one medical worker. “Our job is to administer help, and if possible, lots of hope.”
So the nurses have been singing a lot this Christmas season, teaching the kids lyrics to the Yuletide favorites, like “Deck the Halls,” “The First Noel,” and “Away in a Manger,” which happens to be Jessie’s favorite song.
“Can we sing about the little baby with the mange?!” Jessie often shouts.
“It’s not mange!” one of the nurses usually answers with a laugh. “It’s MANGER!”
And the nurses always oblige once they have a minute. At night sometimes, a nurse will stand beside the child’s bed and deliver impromptu concerts for the girl. Jessie usually joins the merriment herself.
Which is one of the things you lose in here, merriment. You also lose a sense of Christmas altogether. Many parents say that when cancer strikes your house, Christmas immediately feels like a big sham.
After all, it’s just another calendar day. What the heck makes Christmas any different than, say, December 26, or April 5? The sun rises; the sun sets. End of story.
Oh sure, the holiday is glorious when life is going great. But when you’re stuck in an oncology ward watching your 5-year-old struggle to find the basic strength to vomit into his emesis basin, Christmas feels like a crock of lies.
When you are the parent of a 9-year-old with a Wilms tumor, or a 14-year-old with neuroblastoma, you have trouble singing “Silent Night” with conviction.
So in a place like this, during this strained season, these nurses are not just important, they are paramount. In this department, these nurses are Christmas. Their cheery faces. Their kind words. Their songs. Their jokes. Their funny stories.
“Please can we sing?” Jessie asks again. “Pleasepleaseplease?
But medical workers are often forced to make Jessie wait during the afternoons because there is too much going on. This is, after all, a hospital. Patients have strict schedules for treatment, endless appointments, and overlapping timelines. There is hardly any time for cutting loose and belting out “Twelve Days of Christmas.”
But the nurses have never let Jessie down yet, they promise they will sing soon.
First they have to help kids like Ian, a fifth grader, who sits in his bed, playing a video game. The game was one of his early presents. Ian has already gotten all his Christmas gifts for this year because his time is short.
And there is Amanda, age 12, she got a new bike this year, but she has only seen a picture of it on her dad’s cell phone. Her first cheerful question upon receiving the bike was, “Do you really think I’ll ever get to actually ride it?”
It was asked genuinely.
And still somehow, the nurses put on wonderful smiles that never quit. They are constantly updating charts, coordinating feedings, bathings, personal care, and sometimes stepping in for parents when life is too much.
This is an exhausting job. But the mental fatigue is worse. The emotional beatings within this line of work are plenty.
“You gotta hold on to the happy moments,” says one nurse. “Otherwise you’ll crack.”
Because sometimes parents and guardians of patients are angry with medical experts. Parents are not always easy to communicate with, they are often tired, drained, upset, bitter, depressed, you name it. It never escapes the nurses that these parents and patients are experiencing a brand new version of hell each morning.
And so it is the medical staffers who stand on the frontlines. They endure friendly fire from parents and disgruntled family members who simply need to vent at somebody in scrubs.
Many nurses will remain angelically silent amidst the abuse. Because no matter how you cut it, cancer sucks.
“Are we ever gonna sing?” says Jessie to one of the nurses. It’s nighttime now. The girl’s eyelids are heavy, she is sitting upright in her bed.
“Sure,” says an older nurse practitioner, checking her wristwatch. Her shift is almost over. “But let’s sing quietly, Jessie. It’s late and you need your rest.”
The lights are dim, many children are asleep. The nurse practitioner calls a few reinforcements into Jessie’s room to form a tiny choir. The ladies all find their pitch.
Soon, they are singing quietly for the child, clad in their personal protective gear. With their hearts they sing:
“Away in a manger,
“No crib for a bed,
“The little Lord Jesus,
“Lay down his sweet head…”
Jessie is now smiling. By the second verse, she has already joined in. Her high-pitched voice is all anyone can hear:
“I love thee, Lord Jesus,
“Look down from the sky,
“And stay by my cradle,
“Till morning is night.”