This year has been especially difficult for patients and families at Seattle Children’s. Spending time in the hospital is typically not a fun experience, and so for families who have to be inpatient during the holidays, the season may not feel as merry. To help spread joy and brighten up the holidays for children in the hospital, the Child Life team at Seattle Children’s found a new way for Santa to zoom into the hospital this year: they arranged virtual visits, because even during a pandemic, Santa wanted kids in the hospital to know he was thinking about them.
For Melissa Strilecki, 2020 has been more than a difficult year.
“2020 has been the worst year of our lives,” she said.
In May 2020, 3-year-old Hazel came down with what their family thought was a virus. At first, her symptoms didn’t seem insidious. She had a fever and was throwing up. A week later she started complaining of leg pain.
“She was in terrible pain,” Strilecki said. “We couldn’t even pick her up without her crying out.”
They called their pediatrician, and they were advised to take her to Seattle Children’s Emergency Department. At first, they thought her symptoms may have been caused by a bone infection, but after further testing, they received an unimaginable diagnosis: malignant cancer.
“You are told cancer is rare,” Strilecki said. “But it didn’t feel very rare.”
They were devastated.
The worst year ever
Hazel was diagnosed with high-risk neuroblastoma. That day, a grueling 18-month cancer treatment journey began at Seattle Children’s.
“I’m glad we’re here,” Strilecki said. “We’re lucky to live in Seattle and have Seattle Children’s so close to home. You want to see specialists who have seen this type of cancer. At Seattle Children’s, they do.”
As leaders in neuroblastoma research, Seattle Children’s offers the very latest treatments being studied in clinical trials. Consistently, ranked as one of the nation’s best cancer programs, Seattle Children’s doctors help set national standards for neuroblastoma care. They are global leaders in developing new treatments for children at all stages and risk levels of the disease.
Hazel has been in and out of Seattle Children’s for various treatments since May. Her mother says it’s been a really trying year for their family.
“COVID brought our little family unit closer, but cancer devastated every one of us (mom, dad, Hazel, big brother, grandparents, and even the families at Hazel’s preschool) and the isolation caused by COVID has been truly traumatic,” she said. “When we needed people most, they couldn’t come. My hopes for 2021 are first, that Hazel’s brother will be able to visit her in the hospital and second, that Hazel enters remission from high risk neuroblastoma (and stays there forever).”
Finding joy during difficult times
Hazel has been inpatient in Seattle Children’s Cancer Care Unit since Nov. 23. For nearly a month, she has had to enjoy the holidays from her hospital room. Her mother said they’ve done their best to make the hospital feel like home, but it’s not the same. They string fairy lights, hang garland, and they even brought in a two-foot-tall Christmas tree.
The Child Life team at Seattle Children’s understands how difficult it can be to spend so much time in the hospital. They believe everyone should have the opportunity to be a kid.
“Bringing a Santa experience to our patients and families was more important than ever this year,” said Katie Shin, manager of playroom services in the Child Life Department. “For our patients, participating in play while they are in the hospital supports their healing journey by providing a distraction, a sense of normalcy as well as contributing to healthy growth and development. Santa is a part of many families holiday traditions and we felt bringing that to patients and families helped to spread joy, laughter and hope while they are dealing with stresses that come with hospitalization.”
Last week, Hazel got to meet Santa, and the virtual visit made her smile.
Adorned in holiday sweaters and festive garb, two Child Life specialists (Santa’s helpers) helped make the visit extra special.
“The Santa visit was really sweet and really tugged at my heartstrings because Hazy, even more than most people, doesn’t get to do ‘normal’ things anymore,” Strilecki said.
When Hazel and Santa were chatting, he asked her what she wanted this year. She replied enthusiastically, “a yo-yo.”
Home for the holidays
One of the hardest aspects of being in the hospital was having to be separated from her older brother.
“They are each other’s everything,” Strilecki said.
Thankfully, Hazel will be home for Christmas this year, and they are so excited to celebrate as a family. After her visit with Santa, Hazel was discharged from the hospital.
“We’re looking forward to decorating the house even more than it already is and putting ornaments on the tree,” Strilecki said. “We don’t have any big plans, but we’re going to make cookies from scratch and enjoy our time together.”
Hazel will have to return to Seattle Children’s in January for more treatments. Strilecki says she’s very much looking forward to the new year.
“Be kind to one another,” she said. “You never know what people are going through.”
Bringing holiday hope to the hospital
Paul Dudley has been helping with Santa visits for three years. It’s a truly special experience for him.
“These families are going through things that are difficult, scary and unpredictable to say the least,” he said. “This can be an incredibly vulnerable time for them. I do my best to truly respect as well as honor all that I do not know about these kids and their families. What I do know is that every family’s story and struggle is unique and different, but they all have one thing in common I found, and that is the need for hope, love and strength.”
Santa and Child Life have the same goal says Dudley.
“The visits offer a bit of a distraction from the sad and often painful reality of having to be in the hospital, especially at Christmas time,” Dudley said. “And I also hope that these amazing warrior kids know that someone out there loves them and is thinking about them always. That’s what Santa does. He keeps children in his heart all year round.”
Dudley said he’s also been blown away by the compassion and resilience of healthcare workers at Seattle Children’s.
“The nurses, the doctors, the Child Life staff, the receptionists, everyone who works there has dedicated their lives every day to helping children and families navigate some of the hardest times imaginable,” he said. “I am in awe of them and if I am able, even just for a few days, to try and emulate their compassion and care, then I feel like I have helped contribute some joy to what they build day in and day out.”
To kids who weren’t able to receive a virtual visit this year, Dudley says not to worry. Santa is thinking about you.
“He keeps them in his heart, forever and always.”
Holiday cheer outside the hospital
The Child Life team has been hard at work this holiday season trying to think of new and creative ways to help spread holiday cheer. Virtual Santa visits is just one aspect of the many events they’ve coordinated for children and families.
This year, music therapists decided to create virtual caroling music videos so children who are inpatient at the hospital or celebrating at home could sing along and dance to cheerful tunes.
Malachi Stohr is celebrating the holidays at home this year. Their family knows all too well what it’s like to spend the holidays in the hospital. Malachi and his family spent more than 380 days at Seattle Children’s.
Malachi faces many challenges as a medically complex child, but his family believes in celebrating his bright future and embracing all the wonderful things he can do, like dance. Whitney Stohr, Malachi’s mother, loves dancing with Malachi, and so when they heard about the music videos, they were eager to turn up the music!
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No matter how, where or what you celebrate, we wish all our families, patients and supporters the happiness and warmth of this holiday season!
Kids need more than expert care. They also deserve the chance to be a kid, no matter their circumstances. Generous gifts make programs like Child Life possible, in addition to music therapy, art therapy, pet therapy and educational services that provide families with peace of mind and even joy during their most stressful moments.
Donate today to help support.