August 24, 2009
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I looked at myself in the mirror, frowning, and tugged on the bright red polo shirt that was tucked in neatly to my khaki pants. Normally, on a hot summer day, I’d be in a bathing suit at the beach. However, today, and for the next two weeks, I would be wearing this uniform. A red polo, khakis, and sneakers. I pulled on the collar of the shirt again and sighed. It was never going to look perfect—I might as well start.

With one last tightening of my ponytail, I walked out of the bathroom and into the hallway leading towards my summer volunteer job in the children’s hospital. Nurses and doctors whizzed past, and various aunts and uncles struggled to emerge from the elevator doors with their enormous bouquets of flowers and balloons. I smiled at everyone who passed me but their eyes hardly grazed my face. Why pay any attention to me? I was just another volunteer, just another teenager trying to get her community service hours done.

I walked under the sign labeled “HEM/OC.” The words stood for Hematology and Oncology; roughly translated to Cancer and Blood Disorders. A Cancer and Blood Disorders unit for children. The thought of it made my stomach twist. Nonetheless, I walked through the door under the sign and immediately pinned on a bright, yet nervous smile to flash across the room. The only person who saw the smile was a little girl in pigtails who waved back before returning to SpongeBob, who was currently dancing across the television screen.

“Hey, Mary,” I said cheerfully. The receptionist did not even look up before pressing a button that opened a second set of doors, leading to the back rooms of the treatment offices. I pushed on the handle and stepped through, carefully closing the door behind me.

The first thing you notice about the HEM/OC office is that it does not look like an office at all. It is a giant horseshoe-shaped room, where the beds and needles and IV’s line the perimeter of the horseshoe, and your main focus is drawn to the center of the room. The center is filled with toys, tables, coloring pads, videogames, and televisions. The atmosphere is so bright and cheerful, that it makes you want to sit down and start coloring like you were three years old again.

The second thing you notice about the HEM/OC office, of course, are the people.

There are children, and parents, and grandparents, and friends. The grandparents and friends put on a brave show. They never frown, and never cry. It is for this reason, that when you first walk in the room, you hardly recognize them. They are just nameless faces perched over their loved ones with forged expressions of happiness.

It is the parents’ faces that take your breath away.

They are tired. So tired, that sometimes you wonder if maybe they should be in the hospital. Their hands clutch Styrofoam coffee cups from the cafeteria downstairs, and the caffeine appears to be their only lifeline. Underneath their eyes are purple circles and their entire bodies scream with exhaustion. Most sit in the leather chairs provided for them, staring blankly at the children’s shows that flash with bright colors and sounds across the large television screen. Others hover over their playing children, watching them hungrily, as if it may be the last chance to ever see their children again. It’s sad to see them, beaten and devastated, gazing at their children with the sole purpose of experiencing as much as they possibly can, before it is too late. The children, however…

The children are amazing. They are the complete opposite of the adults, with their bright smiles and joyful faces. They run around the hospital rooms with unlimited energy, and they laugh so loud that they often shock the adults out of their depressed stupor. Even the little boy with glasses is giggling as he trails behind him an IV bag filled with blood, which pumps the scarlet liquid into his body from the taped needle in his hand. A group of boys are playing videogames in the corner. A cluster of girls are coloring with markers and glitter at the crafts table. And toddlers, no older than three years old, waddle past their parents towards the teddy bears, arms outstretched.

“Hi, Danielle!” A boy named James sprinted by with a chessboard in his hands. “Do you want to play with me? Please? I’m really good at chess now, I practiced with my dad all last night so I could beat you!”

I smiled widely. “I’d love to play with you. You set the game up and I’ll be there in five minutes, okay?” James ran away quickly, the chess pieces scrambling around in the box like the sound of maracas. I walked over to the sink and washed my hands. I glanced throughout the office. Yes, the children brought joy to the room. But the beeping from machines and low murmurings of doctors invaded with a sense of stillness and severity. It was as if everything in the room was painted and decorated to be happy and cheerful, but it was stuck in a perpetually dense mood of despair. The children laughing were only small, temporary distractions from the horrors these rooms possessed. With a sigh, I looked down once more at my uniform. That was all I was, too. I was a mere distraction, put in place in an attempt to ease the pain of the life and death decisions that hung over the heads of these families.

A piercing scream interrupted my thoughts. Parents snapped out of their trances, children paused in mid-play and looked up. The screaming continued before I could figure out where it was coming from.

A girl was running down the hallways. She looked old enough to know not to be screaming, but just young enough to get away with it. It took me a moment to realize that she was not screaming out of fear or pain, but out of joy. The girl ran up to all doctors that strayed in her path and squeezed them before running off and laughing, and hugging the next person. When she reached me, she gave me the largest hug of all. Behind her was a doctor and a woman who looked like she could be her mother. They were both smiling while the mother shook her head and said: “Haley, don’t scream too loud.”

“I’m done!” Haley laughed, twirling me in a circle with our arms intertwined. “No more chemo! No more chemo forever! It’s over!” She gave another yelp and squeezed me again. Haley let go and began dancing down the hallways and grabbed any children along the way, twirling them in circles just as she had for me. She began singing a tuneless song. The hospital lights reflected off of her entirely bald head and the parents all around us began to smile and congratulate Haley.

I bit down on my lip as hard as I could to stop from crying. Haley, beautiful in her smile and in her laugh and in her dancing, continued her parade through the doctor’s office.

There were times when the hospital room would seem like a time capsule, with parents stuck in their forever-brooding state, and children blissfully oblivious. But then, something raw and powerful—something so beautiful as a little girl named Haley, with no hair and the happiest laugh I had ever heard—would come along and it would make me realize that there was hope in every child who never gave up on their deep, burning desire to live.

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