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On Dec. 8, 2015, Pope Francis opened the doors to St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and announced a Holy Year of Mercy. On Dec, 9, 2015, my 13-year-old grandson was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He was admitted that day to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis. Thus began a most difficult journey. This was not what we wanted for Christmas.
Only a generation ago, this most common of the childhood cancers claimed all its children. Mercifully, that is no longer the case and the prognosis is good, although the treatment is most difficult.
Mercifully, too, Ian lives not far from Riley, so much of his treatment could be outpatient. Hospitals are not fun places to spend your teenage years. In the best case scenario, this was going to be a three-year ordeal.
It would be impossible to say how wonderful the folks at Riley are. Hope happens here, as they say. Doctors, medical students, nurses (most especially pediatric oncology nurses), technicians, support staff, volunteers, even the people who clean the rooms are awesome. No one leaves a patient’s room without asking if there is anything you need. But the fifth floor of Riley, Hematology/Oncology, is a terrifying place to be. So many children, so much pain.
Ian spent the next seven days at Riley on the fifth floor. The rooms are large. They have to be because sometimes there are a lot of people working on a single child in distress. The doors to the rooms are glass with blinds for privacy. Sometimes, patients or their families and friends decorate the rooms and doors, writing things like “Warrior Princess,” “Going home tomorrow,” “Pokemon spoken here” and “No vampires need apply” on the outside of the door.
The rooms have a couch, a reclining chair, a TV and Wii game. They are pretty comfortable, but then too often stays are long. The more decorated the room, the more likely it is that the child has been there a long time.
After Ian was released from the hospital, he was scheduled for weekly chemotherapy at the Riley clinic next door to the hospital. On Dec. 24, he and his parents went to the clinic for his weekly chemo. We expected he would be sick on Christmas from the chemo, but at least he would be home. That did not happen.
Blood tests came back with bad news, and he was admitted to the hospital. We were all very distressed. As I walked to his room that Christmas Eve, not in a hopeful Christmas mood, I noticed something written on one of the doors. Someone had drawn a Christmas tree with a star on top. Written inside the tree were the words: “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
There on the children’s cancer floor, in a place of tragedy and sadness, was faith. This was my Christmas miracle.
It has been a year now since our day of infamy. There have been other hospital admissions, some longer, some when Ian was much sicker, but I will remember that one as a sign of faith in a difficult time. A time of mercy, in a Holy Year of Mercy.
(Sherie Berg is a member of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Indianapolis.) †