Meet Jennifer Thornton, Allie Busby and Jen Peckham, three OHSU employees who volunteer as Chemo Pal mentors, a Children’s Cancer Association program that matches adults with kids undergoing cancer treatment. Chemo Pal mentors are easy to spot in Doernbecher’s halls with their purple shirts and oversized duffle bags, which are filled with games and toys. Their visits provide parents with the opportunity to meet one-on-one with physicians or take much-needed breaks from their child’s hospital room. The Chemo Pal mentors also offer friendship and a bit of distraction for kids undergoing treatment for cancer.
“Treatment can be a very scary and isolating process for kids, so the Chemo Pal is a mentor who can bring fun and laughter to their day to help distract them from what they’re currently going through,” said Jennifer T.
Though they were all drawn to the program by different motivations, their reasons for staying are the same: the chance to brighten a child’s day – even if it’s just an hour at a time – while they fight a very tough battle. Mentors develop special bonds with their Chemo Pal matches and families.
“I’ve seen my match grow up from this tiny little guy into a regular boy. It started as a professional relationship, but it’s developed into a family bond,” Allie, who has put in about 480 hours of volunteer work in the last five years, said. “I sit with him during appointments, play games with him and his siblings and battle over LEGOs. I’m admittedly not very good at building LEGOs, so he’s teaching me.”
Jennifer T., who has volunteered as a Chemo Pal mentor for the last seven years, has developed a special relationship with her Chemo Pal match – a 2-year-old boy whose big personality revealed itself on a visit to his house for a play date.
“As soon as his dad opened the door to let me in, this quiet and reserved boy jumped on top of the couch yelling, “BAG!” while pointing at my duffle bag,” she said. “He had me grinning from ear to ear and I knew at that moment we would be great pals.”
In the last five years, Jen P., who also helps facilitate Chemo Pal training, has been matched with four incredible kids. She loves seeing their faces light up when she walks in the room and is often struck by how resilient kids can be.
“It’s amazing to think that they’re here for chemo, but they can still have joy in the midst of it,” she said.
One of Jen P.’s fondest memories took place outside of treatment when she accompanied her Chemo Pal for an interview at a studio. She enjoyed seeing the young girl revel in the pampered experience of having her hair and makeup done prior to the interview.
Being a Chemo Pal mentor can be difficult, of course. Jennifer T.’s first match passed away when he was 3 years old, but she’s grateful that she was able to spend the last nine months of his life with him as his Chemo Pal.
“His passing was very difficult, but I am constantly reminded of his big smile, great sense of humor and loving heart,” Jennifer T., who still keeps in touch with his parents, said. “I learned so much from him during our time together.”
Another thing mentors often learn: how truly inspiring pediatric cancer patients can be. Kids’ bravery and resilience make a mark on all three Chemo Pal mentors.
“Kids are so small and yet so powerful,” Allie said. “It reminds me that I can get through anything – I just need hope.”
Interested in becoming a Chemo Pal? Learn more about the program here.