Last week, 18-year-old Michael Albrecht walked down the hall of Seattle Children’s Cancer Care Unit in his purple cap and gown. His tassel and honor cords swaying as he walked with his IV pole by his side. He couldn’t attend his high school graduation because was undergoing cancer treatment, and so his care team put on a special graduation just for him at Seattle Children’s. It wasn’t how he envisioned his graduation, but as he always does, he looked on the bright side of things. He had made it.
He posed for photos, high-fived his nurses and doctors and received a mock diploma his child life specialist created for him. It wasn’t the real thing, but the experience was close enough to bring a smile to Michael’s face. The simple ceremony wasn’t the only thing his care team had planned though. They had more in store to celebrate such a monumental milestone.
Graduating with honors
School has always been an important aspect of Michael’s life, and so when he found out he would miss his graduation, he was understandably upset. His care team knew how much graduation meant to him, and so they hatched a plan.
If he wouldn’t be able to attend his graduation in person, then child life specialist, Betsy DeVenney, and Garrett Goody, therapeutic gaming and technology specialist, would make sure he could attend virtually.
DeVenny and Goody coordinated with Michael’s high school principal to have his graduation and senior events live-streamed at the hospital. From the television mounted on the wall in his hospital room, he watched his graduation ceremony.
As his sisters walked the stage to accept his diploma on his behalf, he smiled and waved to his friends and classmates from his hospital bed.
“I almost felt like I was there,” Michael said chuckling.
At Seattle Children’s, the care team is focused on treating the whole child, not just their disease.
“It was important to me and the team because it was important to Michael,” Goody said. “It was evident he wanted to be there, so we were determined to make it happen.”
And so, with the help of technology and creative thinking by Goody and DeVenney, they got him there.
“Michael is the sweetest guy in the world,” DeVenney said. “We knew we needed to do something to make him feel included in his graduation. These are the moments that keep you going, moments you’ll never forget. I’m always going to remember this, and I know he will too.”
The cancer came back
The unit is a familiar place for Michael. He’s been there before. Diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma on his last day of eighth grade, Michael endured nine months of grueling chemotherapy before achieving remission. Then, three years later, on January 29, 2019, in the middle of his senior year of high school, the unthinkable happened: his cancer came back. Every few weeks, he was back at Seattle Children’s for chemotherapy. His latest stay in the hospital for a stem cell transplant has been more than four weeks.
“I knew I was going to miss quite a few events,” Michael said. “It was really disappointing. Graduation ranks as one of the proudest moments of my life, and I wouldn’t be there for it.”
He doesn’t let any of it bring him down though. He has a motto that helps him through the tough times, and it’s one of positivity.
“Cancer is something that has happened to me,” Michael said. “It’s just one part of my story. What I’ve done with it is the important part. I’ve spun it into something positive, built a community and raised awareness and money. That’s what I want people to take away from this. That something negative can be turned into something meaningful that makes a difference.”
Adorning nearly every inch of Michael’s room are words of support and positivity. It’s clear, he has a community behind him, cheering him on.
“He has a positive attitude about everything,” DeVenny said. “He doesn’t take any day for granted. Even through the tough times, he still gives me a smile and thanks me for stopping by. It’s been a blessing to work with him.”
Going home with honors
While inpatient, Michael received a prestigious honor. He was named a 2019 Presidential Scholar for his accomplishments in academics and the arts. He is one of 161 United States Presidential Scholars chosen from across the country. He couldn’t attend the ceremony in Washington, D.C. to receive his Presidential Scholar Medallion, but his care team, friends and family have helped celebrate his accomplishment from the hospital.
Michael is hopeful he’ll be discharged from the hospital this week. It’s been a long stay and he’s excited to be going home. He’s thankful to all the staff who made his stay special. His mother is thankful as well.
“Everyone here cares,” Liz Albrecht said. “The staff have been so supportive, from the doctors to the custodians. We couldn’t be in a better place.”
Words of encouragement
To other people who may be going through a tough time, Michael offers words of encouragement.
“Live each day,” Michael said. “Enjoy the small things and plan for the future.”
Today, that is what Michael is doing. He’s planning for his future.
In the fall, Michael will be attending the University of Washington. He’s going to study to be a pediatric dentist and hopes to one day work at Seattle Children’s.