By Ann Miller Baker - September 27, 2019
Few people remember, but there used to be a schoolroom on the fifth floor of Moffitt Cancer Center. And murals of cartoon characters on the walls. A playroom with rocking horses. Nintendos in every room. Even cribs.
From its opening in 1986 until 1995, Moffitt cared for children with cancer in its pediatric unit on 5-North. Lori Fox, RN, OCN, now clinical leader for the blood draw unit at Moffitt’s Schulze Outpatient Center, was originally hired to help open Moffitt’s pediatric unit. She recalls treating cancer patients as young as just 12 weeks of age. Playpens and highchairs lined the 5N nurses station so that nurses could keep an eye on young patients while updating charts. “Some parents had to work and couldn’t always stay with their hospitalized child,” Fox says, “so we became part of their family, too.”
Misti Dietrich, RN, now a triage nurse in Moffitt’s Endocrine Clinic, had just graduated from the University of South Florida nursing school when she came to work in pediatrics with Fox. She remembers the schoolroom run by teacher Cynthia King, who happened to be a cancer survivor. To maintain something of a normal childhood routine, school-aged patients would get dressed and go to class toting their IV poles. “They were so resilient,” says Dietrich. “Nothing kept them down. They were sick but didn’t know they were.”
That made for some interesting stories. Fox remembers one time when two older boys undergoing treatment grew bored and began investigating their surroundings. “At that time, you could still open the windows just a crack,” says Fox, “so they decided to throw makeshift water balloons out the window. We didn’t realize it until security came up to ask what was going on.”
One way to keep kids occupied was to show them how different areas of the hospital work. These “field trips” included visits to the Information Technology department, where Moises Suarez still works. Back then, he would put all the kids on their own computers and show them how to browse the internet before Google, Internet Explorer or Netscape even existed. At the end of one session, he had the children send email messages to then-President Bill Clinton at the White House. “I followed up to let them know all these kids were cancer patients at Moffitt,” Suarez recalls. When President Clinton mailed each of the patients an autographed photo, says Suarez, “some of them were so excited they had to go lay down because their monitors were going off!”
Another favorite tour stop was the cafeteria and kitchens where then-Executive Chef Mark Van Brocklin still supervises the Food Services department. In addition to showing young patients how food was prepared, Van Brocklin spent every Tuesday putting together a “Pedi-Picnic” for 5N. Mounds of tuna or chicken salad would be sculpted into playful shapes and delivered to the pediatric unit. Every holiday became a cause for celebration and decoration. Van Brocklin even helped patients carve pumpkins for Halloween.
But his most lasting impression of the days when Moffitt treated pediatric patients was of the lessons they provided adult patients with similar diagnoses. “Once in a while, you’d have an adult with leukemia who wanted to give up,” says Van Brocklin. “So they’d take him up to 5N and say, ‘See Johnny there? He’s 8 years old and has the same diagnosis as you. And he’s dragging an IV pole, throwing a Nerf football with his friend.’ You could just feel the goosebumps coming over you because those kids didn’t know the meaning of ‘give up.’ ”
A New Chapter
Closing Moffitt’s pediatric program was a melancholy moment for team members like Van Brocklin, Fox and Dietrich. But it was clearly in the children’s best interest. Moffitt closed the inpatient pediatric center in June 1995 as leadership felt that its young patients would be best served by institutions that could treat a wider range of pediatric health issues, beyond cancer. Soon after, Moffitt started an affiliation agreement with All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, now known as Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
But the memories of courageous children live on in the stories of Moffitt team members who were there, when Moffitt cared for kids.