Thinking that she would never return, Riley Okeefe, 15, a cancer survivor, revisited Miami Children’s Hospital on Saturday.
This time she was decked out in a scarlet red gown, hoop earrings and donned a white orchid corsage on her left wrist. The occassion?
A first-ever prom at the hospital for 15- to 18-year-olds who are current or former patients.
“It’s awesome to be here and not as a cancer patient staying all night,” said Riley, who was diagnosed with Stage 3 sarcoma cancer when she was 14. She has spent most of the last year undergoing chemotherapy.
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Riley, who lives in West Palm Beach, was among about 75 other patients who attended the prom, held at a tent on the hospital grounds.
“It’s really incredible that Miami Children’s is once again stepping up to the plate and creating this evening for the kids,” said Teresa Okeefe, Riley’s mom. “They leave everything about the real world behind and they get to be who they really are inside.”
The guests invited to the Mad Hatter-themed event were permitted to bring a date. Riley brought a friend from her high school, William T. Dwyer, in West Palm Beach.
“What we realized was that Miami Children’s Hospital has a lot of different services, but the teen population always gets left out,” said Terri Hernandez, child life specialist and one of the people in charge of planning the event.
Some of the attendees were current patients who came downstairs with their nurses, while others were hospitalized within the past year. The teenagers ranged from being hematology, oncology, renal, Crohn's or colitis patients. Some of them are on the dialysis machines three times a week, while others are on seizure medications and have neurological issues.
“These medical conditions make it very challenging for them to do the normal things that a teenager would do,” Hernandez said. “They have a hard time going to parties. Their parents have a hard time going to parties, leaving them out of fear.”
The child life specialists and the nurses created an information sheet with everyone’s medical information on file.
“I think I can plan probably about 10 weddings, and it will be a little bit easier than this one event,” Hernandez said.
Adam Carlin and his family donated $300,000 to the Miami Children's Health Foundation that covered this year’s prom and will cover prom events for the next four years.
“It’s a night for these wonderful, young people to enjoy themselves and not think of anything else,” Carlin said, “It’s all about them. That’s the most important thing.”
Andres Hidalgo, 17, who is diagnosed with leukemia in 2013, agrees.
“I am excited to see my girlfriend,” said Andres, dressed in a black suit with a white shirt tie and black tie. “But most of all I just want to see everyone having a good time and being happy.”
While the teens mingled and danced, the parents of the patients had dinner and saw a live stream of the prom in a different area of the hospital.
“It’s really neat to have opportunities like this, where they’re on their own,” Okeefe said, “They need that kind of space. Typically through our treatments we’re together 24/7.”
Miami Marlins' DJ Vertigo spinned the music while the teens danced until 11 p.m.
“This is one night where that they got dressed up to come to the hospital for a good time and it’s so counter clashes coming to the hospital for treatment,” said Hernandez, “Tonight they came for a really good time and it makes a really big difference.”