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Ailing kids get boost from volunteers' hospital visits

| Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, 8:57 p.m.
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside greets a young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside greets a young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside leans in close to hear Jessica Bookwalter, 5, of Franklin at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a nonprofit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside leans in close to hear Jessica Bookwalter, 5, of Franklin at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a nonprofit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside sings with young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, while the two watch a DVD at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside sings with young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, while the two watch a DVD at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside gets a high-five with young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside gets a high-five with young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside greets a young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside greets a young patient, Stella Drivere, 6, of Greenville, PA, at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside transforms into a snow princess before visiting patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside transforms into a snow princess before visiting patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside reads with Jessica Bookwalter, 5, of Franklin at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Dressed as a snow princess, Erika Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside reads with Jessica Bookwalter, 5, of Franklin at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Jan. 26, 2016. Strasburg is currently in the process of registering a non-profit called The Fairytale Foundation, which attempts to lift the spirits of young patients with personalized visits from a princess.
Cooper Glen Meadows, 6, of Lawrenceville opens his gifts as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. The Penguins tour the hospital around Christmas every year to distribute gifts, pose for photographs and sign autographs. The Penguins shown are: Evgeni Maklin (from left), Jeff Zatkoff, Eric Fehr, Adam Clendening, Matt Cullen and Sergei Plotnikov.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Cooper Glen Meadows, 6, of Lawrenceville opens his gifts as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks on at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015. The Penguins tour the hospital around Christmas every year to distribute gifts, pose for photographs and sign autographs. The Penguins shown are: Evgeni Maklin (from left), Jeff Zatkoff, Eric Fehr, Adam Clendening, Matt Cullen and Sergei Plotnikov.
Nilay Doijad, 14, of Mars Township watches as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre pre-professional students perform vignettes from 'The Nutcracker' for Children's Hospital patients at the Lawrenceville hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2016.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Nilay Doijad, 14, of Mars Township watches as Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre pre-professional students perform vignettes from 'The Nutcracker' for Children's Hospital patients at the Lawrenceville hospital on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2016.
2015 Pittsburgh Steelers rookies Sammie Coates (#14), from left in jerseys, L.T. Walton (#96), and Jesse James (#81), play chess with Davi Millener, front left, 6, and his brother Alexander, front right, 7, of Pawley's Island, S.C.  during the rookies' visit to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class joined families and patients at the hospital for the team's annual visit, sharing in crafts, games, and time for autographs and photos.
Stephanie Strasburg | Trib Total Media
2015 Pittsburgh Steelers rookies Sammie Coates (#14), from left in jerseys, L.T. Walton (#96), and Jesse James (#81), play chess with Davi Millener, front left, 6, and his brother Alexander, front right, 7, of Pawley's Island, S.C. during the rookies' visit to Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC in Lawrenceville on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2015. The 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers rookie class joined families and patients at the hospital for the team's annual visit, sharing in crafts, games, and time for autographs and photos.
Rick Bollinger, of Natrona Heights as Spiderman gets a wave from Drake Bowser, 5, Thursday as a crew of costume-clad washers from Allegheny Window Cleaning, Inc. clean the windows of the Lawrenceville hospital.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Rick Bollinger, of Natrona Heights as Spiderman gets a wave from Drake Bowser, 5, Thursday as a crew of costume-clad washers from Allegheny Window Cleaning, Inc. clean the windows of the Lawrenceville hospital.
Steve Virag, of Lower Burrell as Superman, Mark Errico, of Plum as Captain America, Jim Zaremba, of New Kensington as Batman and Rick Bollinger, of Natrona Heights as Spiderman scale the facade of Children's Hospital, Thursday as the crew of costume-clad washers from Allegheny Window Cleaning, Inc. rid the windows of the Lawrenceville hospital of grime.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Steve Virag, of Lower Burrell as Superman, Mark Errico, of Plum as Captain America, Jim Zaremba, of New Kensington as Batman and Rick Bollinger, of Natrona Heights as Spiderman scale the facade of Children's Hospital, Thursday as the crew of costume-clad washers from Allegheny Window Cleaning, Inc. rid the windows of the Lawrenceville hospital of grime.
Actor and Mt. Lebanon native Joe Manganiello visits with patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC while in town for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation’s 125th Anniversary Gala. Manganiello takes pictures with hospital patient Benita Lippold, 16, of Robinson and her mother Diane while touring the Lawrenceville facility.
Sidney Davis | Trib Total Media
Actor and Mt. Lebanon native Joe Manganiello visits with patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC while in town for Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation’s 125th Anniversary Gala. Manganiello takes pictures with hospital patient Benita Lippold, 16, of Robinson and her mother Diane while touring the Lawrenceville facility.

The 5-year-old girl lying in the hospital bed can no longer speak.

But she can cry and she can wave.

And she does both when the princess walks into her room to place a silver crown upon her head.

“Hi, sweetheart,” the woman dressed as the character from “Frozen” says as she kneels by the sick girl's bed.

“You look so beautiful,” she says. “You look so cozy in your blanket.”

The little girl is Jessica Bookwalter. She has inoperable brain cancer. The left side of her face is paralyzed, but she manages a smile with the right side when she sees her favorite Disney character. Tears form, then roll down her cheeks.

The woman in costume is Erika Strasburg. She dresses up as a princess and visits sick children at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. She does not cry. Because crying in front of the children is not allowed. So she saves her tears for the car ride home.

——

It's not fair what these little kids go through, says Strasburg, 27, of Shadyside. So if she, as a performer, can help in any way, it's only an hour out of her day.

“But it's a smile for them,” she says, “or a game-changer in how they're feeling that week.

“I leave here, obviously, feeling sad,” she says, “but also feeling like I've helped.”

The magical visits do help, hospital officials say — in multiple ways.

They can lower anxiety in patients and their caregivers, decrease the need for pain medications and give ailing children something positive to focus on when everything else is negative.

“We've had everyone, from SpongeBob to Barney to Dora, to the gamut of superheroes and princesses,” says Heather Ambrose, the hospital's director of nursing who also oversees the Child Life and Volunteer departments. “It provides a distraction. When they're above 6 years of age, they understand what they're missing. … These types of visits help their healing process and move them in the right direction.”

The children also get visits from local sports heroes and visiting celebrities.

——

Sometimes, the kids know in advance that someone special is coming.

“We use it as a reward,” Ambrose says, “a motivational tactic to help children become engaged in their medical care.”

Other times, the visits are a surprise — as was the case with Jessica Bookwalter.

She was diagnosed with cancer last year, shortly before her fifth birthday. The tumor sits at the base of her brain, near the pituitary gland. She has had several rounds of radiation and chemotherapy. Doctors say it will never go away, and Jessica will get progressively worse.

Jessica was featured in the Trib in October, when she went to a Pirates game hoping to cross an item off her bucket list: Getting a player to autograph her homemade sign (which is exactly what relief pitcher Arquímedes Caminero did).

Another item on her bucket list: Visit her favorite princess, Elsa, at Disney World (which is exactly what she did this summer, thanks to the Make A Wish Foundation).

——

Jessica's constant companion, from beginning to end, knows the princess is coming.

“Oh, my stomach is in knots,” says Michelle Bookwalter, Jessica's mom, moments before the visit. “She's going to be so excited. She loves Elsa.”

The ice princess spends about 10 minutes with Jessica.

She reads with her, sings to her and constantly reminds the little girl that she is beautiful.

Jessica stares into her eyes intently. She does not notice her mom crying in the corner.

“Did you know Tinker Bell is making me dinner tonight?” the princess says. “We're going to have spaghetti and meatballs. And then, for dessert, we're going to have ice-cream sundaes. It's going to be me and Kristoff and Anna and hopefully Olaf — but he's having a great time in the snow, so we'll see if he makes it.”

——

Strasburg finds solace in knowing that her visits carry light into a dark time.

“The hardest part is when you see children like Jessica, knowing how much pain she's in,” Strasburg says. “You wonder why. But I'm sure everyone in this building wonders why.”

On this night, however, Jessica Bookwalter will not wonder why she has cancer.

She will only wonder how it came to be that her favorite magical princess found her, how she ended up in her room of all rooms.

“I have some wish gems for you,” the princess says, handing one to the little girl. “Hold it in your hand. Squeeze it really, really tight. Then blow on it.

“Now,” she says:

“Make a wish.”

Chris Togneri is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com.

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