The Greatest Assist: Players Bring Smiles, Memories to Patients at CHOC Children's Hospital
September was National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, but really, fighting cancer in children and showing them love and support is a year-round endeavor.
At times, these brave young boys and girls, often in hospital rooms for weeks, even months on end, need that reminder that the world around them is thinking of them, cares for them, is rooting for them; is, in even the simplest of gestures, part of their fight, part of their recovery.
September may have ended on Monday, but Tuesday brought smiles and solidarity to the cancer patients at CHOC Children's Hospital. Several Orange County Soccer Club players -- along with President of Soccer Operations Oliver Wyss, his wife, Jamie, and their young team ambassador, Chris, himself a CHOC patient -- visited children of all ages in their rooms, bearing gifts and the gift of friendship.
By the end, it was impossible to decipher which group viewed the other as the bigger heroes.
"Just to put a smile on their faces, and in turn, they always end up putting smiles on our faces. We had a girl sing for us, other kids dancing and cracking jokes, just hoping to brighten their day" said OCSC defender Walker Hume, whose father is a doctor and sister a nurse in West Texas. "Just seeing the nurses here and what my sister goes through on a daily basis, and obviously my dad treating loads of patients, it puts things in perspective. It's definitely something bigger going on. Seeing these kids, they're stronger than we are."
Hume was joined by teammates Michael Orozco, Darwin Jones, Danny Crisostomo and Kevin Alston, himself a cancer survivor. The players brought dozens of toys donated by Soccer For Hope, as well as Orange County Soccer hats and scarfs, which the players all signed. There were also gift cards and tickets for future OCSC games.
But it was the personal interactions that were the greatest gifts of all. One young boy greeted the players with his wide array of handshakes and fist-bumps. Another showed off his dance moves with Alston. A young girl sang for the players and was invited to perform the National Anthem at a future OCSC game.
"I was a beast at soccer!" a young boy proudly declared to the players.
Alston was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia back in 2013 while playing with the New England Revolution, but was back playing in three months and is considered cancer free. But he will always be able to relate to these children and appreciate the good such visits can do.
"I know from being in their position that just having that distraction and something to smile about and just the change of pace to your day, I know how much it means to them," Alston said. "I know how much it meant to me back then. If we can go in and make them smile for a second, it makes a world of difference. I think sometimes we forget the impact we can have outside of soccer. It's so rewarding. It's one of those things where it's not winning a championship, it's being able to affect a young kids' life. They're like, 'I wish I could be like you.' You can be like us. It's so fulfilling to share that moment with them."
Orange County players, as well as players throughout the league, wore gold ribbons in support of National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Wyss, himself a bone-marrow transplant recipient and avid philanthropist, said the team will continue wearing the ribbons through the end of their season, including, they hope, a deep playoff run.
According to Dr. Diane Nugent, CHOC Medical Director of Pediatric Hematology, the combined hematology-oncology wings admit roughly 300 new patients every year and conducts upwards of 25,000 outpatient visits. On Tuesday, there were admitted patients ranging in age from 1 to 20.
"I think having an outside team come, speaks to the fact that the world outside cares about you," Nugent said. "You're not just a lonely person in a room, doctors and nurses going in and out; that there's
a whole community outside these walls that really care. I think it's one thing for people to donate money to the hospital, we're thankful for that, but people who donate their time, for the patients themselves, it's really an important thing.
"Many times, there are days spent locked in a room, they can't get out of their room, they're not feeling their best because of the chemotherapy, but just having someone come in, especially from a team famous here in Orange County, it's inspiring. Jamie and Oliver have been coming to CHOC for 15 years, sharing his story of having had a bone-marrow transplant and overcoming it. It's so inspiring to the kids. It makes them see, not just today, but the goal line they want to cross to get out of here."
The day was also an emotional boost for the family members of the patients. Even before the players began their tour, they encountered a six-year-old boy named Ryder, and his father, Joe Lambert. They were there to visit Ryder's baby sister, aged 1, who was recovering from surgery. Ryder was the first child of the day to feel the love from the players, getting sunglasses and a shirt, as well as encouraging words for his sister.
"When I see things like this, it's heartwarming," Joe Lambert said. "To see them come to a hospital with many kids, when they come and show their love like that, it makes me feel good. When I see people putting forth extra effort like that, it's awesome."
The players and the rest of the OCSC entourage posed for pictures with all the patients they visited. But the memories will always live in the children's hearts and minds.
"We know from studies how important it is to have good spirits, all of those things" Nugent said. "It's very exciting to see someone you hold up as a hero come into your room and say, 'I care about you and I want you to get well.' It's huge. The kids are better for days after that. It makes a big difference. It's very uplifting."
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