Humans of New York: 'War stories' from the frontlines of Memorial Sloan Kettering's pediatric department

The faces of the pediatric patients, nurses, physicians and executives at New York-based Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center tell all kinds of stories. They tell stories of fear and loss. But they also tell unequivocal stories of hope, commitment and healing.

Brandon Stanton created "Humans of New York" in 2010 as part of his goal to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the street. HONY, which now has more than 20 million followers on social media, provides a global audience a raw look at the uncensored lives of people in New York and around the world. Mr. Stanton has completed series in more than 20 countries, such as Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Uganda, South Sudan, India, Vietnam and Israel. For his latest project, Mr. Stanton has collected "war stories" from the halls and bedsides at New York City's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center's pediatric department.

"Obviously these are not going to be easy stories to read," Mr. Stanton wrote on Facebook. "These are war stories. The treatment of cancer can be nearly as violent as the condition itself, and even the doctors will frame their efforts in terms of warfare. But the fight against pediatric cancer is uniquely tragic because the battlefield is the body of a child. So these are definitely war stories. But as with every war, there are heroes. You'll meet the amazing doctors, nurses and researchers who have committed their lives to this fight. You'll meet the moms and dads who refuse to crumble while living out their greatest fear. And most importantly, you'll meet the reason that everyone is fighting, and the greatest warriors of all — the kids. So yes, these are war stories. But this is also the story of humanity's bold response to the greatest injustice of nature."

Here are words from some of the patients, families and healthcare providers at MSK's pediatric department, as reported by HONY. To view the ongoing series, click here.

1. "I got diagnosed last January. A mass behind my spine, two masses in my lungs, spots all over my lymph nodes and bone marrow. The
guy who gave me the CT scan threw up afterward. The doctor said they could guarantee three years. I was like: 'Three years. Holy shit.' My biggest worry is that I'm going to die and not do all the things I wanted to do. The funny thing is — I didn't even realize how many things I wanted to do until I got diagnosed. Simple things like meeting a guy, getting married, getting a job, having my own apartment and even picking out my own furniture. Those never seemed too interesting to me. They just seemed like adult things that were guaranteed to happen. Now I want to do them so bad. Because I want to know what they feel like." 

2. "I grew up around nature. I had a wonderful family and a great life and it was so easy to be a believer. Then over the course of a single weekend, I learned that my one-year-old son was blind, had a seizure disorder and a brain tumor. I remember I went to a beach, and a storm was coming in, and I just sat on the edge of the ocean and I wailed. For an hour I screamed in the pouring rain. That was thirteen years ago, and there hasn't been a moment of relaxation since then. We've researched everything. We've tried everything. Anything to keep the tumor from growing. And the longer we've gone on, the more we've tried, and the narrower the choices get. There is nothing I won't do to save my child. There is not a doctor you can keep me from. I'll drive across the country for a single conversation. But I live with such pain. It's not rocket science. Every day could be the day that I lose my child. But I'm trying to look up. I'm trying to have gratitude. And I'm trying to keep my faith."

3. "The nurse is in that room day in and day out. You give a piece of yourself to that child. But intimacy has its dangers. You have to be able to set it aside. You can't come in on your days off. You have to be able to go home at the end of the day and have a glass of wine, or go rock climbing or visit with friends. If you can't go home and rebuild, you'll burn out. You won't be able to handle the losses if you're just surviving off the wins. Because the losses are severe. You were allowed into that child's life at their most intimate time, and you were trusted. And that is a gift. And even in death, you learned something from that child that made you a better person and a better nurse."

4. "My biggest challenge? Two words for you: third grade. It's kind of like second grade but harder. I was a very special student in second grade because I had a brain tumor. A very rare one, actually. I was the only one in the world with this type of brain tumor. Everyone who knew me was shocked! Their heads blew up! I've been through a lot of things this past year. But I can tell you, if you get brain cancer, try not to worry! It will be very hard and you will get lots of fevers but you have to be brave. You have to be brave like me because I'm very brave about this thing. And if you don't know how to be brave, I can teach you. I know the surgery seems scary, but I have four words for you: you'll be on anesthetics. When you wake up, your head will be wrapped like a mummy and your mom will take a picture and show you. When it's time to get shots, do a countdown from thirty and tell yourself: 'Calm down, calm down, calm down.' Then whenever you're ready, tell the nurse to go. And if you need more time, ask for more time!"

5. "Some of my colleagues tell me they can't imagine working in pediatrics. Millions of years of evolution have conditioned us to respond to the cries of a child. We can't bear to see a child in pain. And once we have children of our own, it makes the work even more difficult. We all handle it differently, but everyone cries at some point. Not in front of the patient, but everyone cries. Every few months we have a ceremony where we mourn all the children who have passed away. We have a slideshow. We make cards. We talk about them and remember them together. We acknowledge that we all feel the loss. And even though our grief is not as significant as the family's, it's not trivial either. And we must take time to acknowledge that. Or all of us will burn out."

6. "All doctors have those patients who sit on our shoulder. Their image is always with you. One kid will pop into your head every time you hit a wall — when you encounter a disease that is so unrelenting that you've exhausted all therapies and you're still not even close. One memory will keep you going. It's a different kid for every doctor. It's hard to know why they stick with us. I remember one patient that had red hair just like my son. And I remember one five-year-old girl who made me laugh, because when I asked her how she was doing, she told me: 'I don't know. You're the doctor.' And then there was the boy early in my career who was born without an immune system. He'd already lost two older siblings to the same disease. He lived the first two years of his life in an isolation room with no windows, and his entire exposure to the world was through a black-and-white TV. We gave him a bone marrow transplant, and suddenly his immune system came online. And we took him for a walk in the garden. This boy who had spent his entire life in a windowless room. And a sparrow landed on a bush, and he pointed at it, and said: 'Bird.' That moment will always be with me."

HONY is working to raise $1 million to help the team at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in their fight against pediatric cancer. You can donate here.


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