For teenage patients with bone marrow conditions, blood and clotting disorders, leukemia, brain tumors and other pediatric cancers, attending a dance or a prom is not often a reality due to the risks of germ contamination to their fragile immune systems paired with long hospital stays and treatments. But for the second year in a row, that once-out-of-reach dream was made real on Saturday night as a section of Nicklaus Children's Hospital near Coral Gables transformed into the ultimate prom venue where nearly 70 teenage patients and former patients in shimmery gowns and tuxes danced the night away during a ’50s-themed event.
Intermingled with the prom-goers were doctors, nurses and child life specialists like Terri Hernandez, who dressed in a vintage pink and black poodle skirt and initiated dance moves to help the prom goers loosen up on the dance floor.
“Because the hospital is celebrating its 65th anniversary,” said Hernandez, whose been a child life specialist for five years, “we wanted to take it back 65 years, which puts us in the 1950s, and what better way to do it than with a ’50s party!” The specialists serve as the liaison of communicating patients’ special needs with the hospital’s healthcare team and provided patient care support during the prom.
Parents snapped photos of their children, who posed on a red carpet beside a shiny vintage car just before the teens made their way inside, where Miami Marlins DJ Vertigo spun tunes that ranged from the Grease soundtrack to today’s popular hits.
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The event was made possible by husband and wife Adam and Chanin Carlin, whose donation of $300,000 covers the costs of the hospital’s prom for a span of five years. Last year’s theme was the Mad Hatter. Food, desserts and services like hair and make-up were donated by local businesses while families were given Macy’s gift cards so patients could purchase their outfits.
“For these young people, so much of their normal day is unfortunately involved with medical issues. They don’t get to be just typical kids that don’t have to worry about these things,” says donor Adam Carlin. “To have an evening where they can smile, dance and dress up and they be the kids that they are is so magical.”
He and his wife, parents to twin boys, 3½, were so impressed with the care their children received at the 289-bed hospital to treat their sons’ bumps and bruises, that they wanted to do something nice for those who worked there and for those being treated there.
“We realized that anybody’s child could be sick at any moment in time,” he said. “If, God forbid, their child is sick and it’s time for their prom, we figured why don’t we try and do something that will allow these beautiful children to dress up and enjoy themselves for at least one night.”
A separate party for parents, with food and music, was held in lobby of the hospital’s pediatric medical research facility, just a two-minute walk from where the prom was held — far enough to give the teens privacy yet close enough to react in case a medical emergency involving their child were to happen. A live-feed streamed on a monitor offered parents a view of the dance floor, where they got to see their teens having fun while also being comforted by the peace of mind that they were alright.
“These are parents that don’t get a lot of things to smile about when their children are sick and to watch them smile and enjoy their kids having a good time is absolutely heartwarming,” Carlin said.
Riley O’Keefe, 16, and her best friend Kira, nearly 13, met at Nicklaus while undergoing chemotherapy treatments. This is Riley’s second year attending, and Kira’s first.
“I was supposed to go but then I got diagnosed, so I didn’t get to,” said Kira, who had acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood.
“It’s cool,” Kira said of the event, “because a lot of the kids who are in treatment can’t necessarily go to a normal school and this is for ages where they would be going to a prom or some kind of dance.” She adds that those undergoing treatments wouldn’t be able to go to a school prom or dance because of germs.
“And the best part is even if their immune systems are low, if something were to happen you’ve got the nurses who know what to do and you’re literally right next to a hospital,” says Riley who was diagnosed with a primary neural epidural tumor. “Only three cases have been found and they’ve all been in adults,” she says of the rare cancer.
The duo tried on dresses for two hours at Macy’s before deciding on two shimmery white gowns, one with silver lining and the other with gold. The store’s representatives helped them find the outfits and shoes to match. Hours before the event all the girls got their make-up and hair done by professionals.
“Now they both have hair, their immunity is back, and now they can have colds and not die, so that’s always good,” said Riley’s father, Rick O’Keefe, who along with other parents, were watching their kids dance via the live stream.
Before last year’s prom, doctors had found a nodule on Riley’s thyroid but advised that the biopsy could be done after the prom. “All she cared about was ‘Does she get to go to prom?’ not whether she had cancer in her thyroid,” he said.
He and his wife, who hail from North Palm Beach, a two-hour commute, took Riley to several different hospitals before arriving at Nicklaus. “It’s all kids here,” he said. “Other hospitals just feature different floors for kids but not a dedicated building just for them. That’s what’s so special about here — it’s only kids. Everybody is geared toward them.”
Both girls are currently cancer-free.
Founded in 1950, Nicklaus Children's Hospital — formerly Miami Children's Hospital — is South Florida's only licensed specialty hospital exclusively for children with specialty programs ranked among the best in the nation.
“They’re kids” said Lisbet Fernandez-Vina, the director of external affairs for Miami Children’s Health Foundation, the fundraising arm of Miami Children’s Health System and Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. “They’re really living in the moment and things like this is what makes it happen,” she says of the dance. “This is why this prom is so important — it lets them forget everything and enjoy. The parents know that they’re in a safe environment if something were to happen.”