Amidst the clamor of construction and downtown traffic Tuesday, a crowd of patients, nurses and doctors met outside of Kaiser Oakland’s pediatric building to support National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Adorned in school bus-yellow t-shirts emblazoned with “Little Kids Get Cancer, Too,” health care providers and families gathered outside the hospital’s pediatric unit in downtown Oakland. Together, the group rallied to promote childhood cancer awareness and celebrate patients’ personal triumphs against the disease.
The gathering was conceived by Clarence Berger-Greer, whose son Teddy, age 3, is currently being treated at Kaiser Oakland Medical Center for neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer. “I felt like the children needed some sort of recognition,” she said. “When I asked the hospital if they could come up with a yellow t-shirt for them, they responded immediately.”
As midday grew near, some eighty health care workers emerged from the building, jettisoning their nametags and stethoscopes to don the yellow shirts in honor of their patients. A short walk to the hospital’s Serenity Garden began, led by Pediatric Intensive Care Unit nurse manager Jolynn Piazza. “What do we want?” she cheered. “Cancer cure!” the crowd responded. Small children were carried to garden in the arms of their parents, while other patients sat in wheelchairs pushed by the hospital staff.
The crowd sauntered into the garden, following its serpentine path to a central courtyard decorated with golden balloons. The children are placed in the shade of trees overhead. Jerome Adeyemi, a chaplain at Kaiser Oakland, recited a verse from Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning.” “To live is to suffer,” he said, projecting his voice solemnly across the garden. “To survive is to find meaning in the suffering.” Parents nodded their heads in acknowledgement.
“Events like these are what keep you going,” said Jorge Gutierrez, a pediatric intensive care physician who grew up in Oakland. “It gives us an opportunity to step back from our clinical work and celebrate the successes we’ve had treating children with cancer.”
“The nurses and the staff become part of your family while you’re going through all of this,” said Colleen Plummer whose son Gavin, age 4, was diagnosed in 2010 with a tumor. Plummer wears beads in long strands that signify the procedures Gavin’s undergone or milestones he’s passed. “The silver ones represent his dressing changes,” she said, rubbing the beads between her fingers. “White is for hospital visits. The stars are for surgery.”
She pulled out a ring decorated with small turquoise bumps. “These are for when he’s got a bumpy road ahead,” Plummer said with a laugh. “Gavin’s spirit is good, which is what pulls all of us through the hard times.”
Berger-Greer looked down admiringly at her son, who was standing next to her. “Parents have raised millions of dollars to provide treatment for these children. This is the message we have to get out to everyone,” she said. Teddy suddenly sprinted off, running playfully across the courtyard. “He’s very happy today,” said Berger-Greer. “He’s very comfortable around adults. That’s all he knows.”
Gutierrez quietly watched the kids play in the courtyard. A slight wind knocked around several golden balloons attached to the railing beside him. “One patient I cared for many years ago…” he began, and then paused. “Not only is she an adult and college graduate but now she’s a mother,” he continued, his voice breaking. “For me, it’s a privilege to work with these children.”