Ailing kids get boost from volunteers' hospital visits
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 email@example.com.