Georgetown Big Brothers Make a Difference in the Lives of Children with Cancer

By Shannon Ross Special to the Hoya

While Georgetown University students are busy worrying about the exam in their next class or the argument they had with their roommate that morning, only a hundred yards away in the Georgetown Medical center, young children are being treated for cancer. Usually these two worlds never meet. While they exist side by side, neither really has contact with the other, except for the students involved in OPUS.

OPUS (Oncology Patient University Student), run through the pediatric oncology/hematology department of the Lombardi Cancer Center, pairs Georgetown undergraduates with children undergoing treatment for various forms of cancer and blood diseases. The center sees over 100 children annually. An OPUS volunteer follows each child through the entire cycle of inpatient and outpatient treatment, acting as a big brother or big sister to the child.

One big brother is Chris Watson (COL ’99), who has been working with OPUS for two years. Since his junior year, he has been involved with two patients, Johnny, 14, and Javier, 8. Johnny is no longer actively undergoing treatment, while Javier currently suffers from a brain tumor. Treatment for the brain tumor has left him paralyzed on one side. Despite the obstacles Javier faces, he is still an eight-year-old who enjoys video games and beanie babies, according to Watson.

“OPUS gives sick children time to be a normal child,” Watson said. “My favorite part of the program is [that] it gives me a chance to be a child again too. I get to play with toys and connect with children on their level, relieving pain. It is a very special interaction that you don’t see everyday.”

Watson recalled a time when Javier began to dance in his bed to a Diana Ross song. He sat in his bed and danced with the mobile side of his body; soon, Watson was dancing too and so were other people who came into the room from the hall. “He is a funny kid,” said Watson, laughing, who credits such activities with maintaining Javier’s spirits.

The program was founded over a decade ago by Bruce Epperly, Georgetown’s Senior Protestant Chaplain, and a clinical social worker in the pediatric hematology department. According to the current director of the OPUS program, clinical social worker Yvonne Bush, about 15 students volunteer with OPUS. The number of volunteers varies with the number of children in the clinic undergoing treatment.

The OPUS program requires its volunteers to have significant weekly contact with their child and to attend monthly volunteer meetings. The oncology patients range in age from infants to people in their early twenties. Students normally agree to participate for the entire treatment cycle, which usually lasts a year. Certain cases, though, notably leukemia, can require treatment for up to two and a half years.

Some volunteers continue to have contact with their children after they leave the clinic. Tracy Kondla (COL ’99) has been paired with three patients during the three years she has been involved with the program. This semester she began seeing seven-year-old Jackie. Junior year she was matched with Tesha, currently a senior in high school, who has sickle cell anemia. When she first began the program, she paired up with Erika, now 18, currently in remission from throat cancer.

Tesha is now receiving treatment in Maryland. Kondla considers her and Erika close friends, and enjoys talking to them on the phone about their college application experiences and social lives. “It has been wonderful,” she said. “They have taught me so much in terms of determination and courage. They really are role models for me.” Kondla considers these friendships the most valuable aspect of the program.

The friendships were not always easy in the making. Erika, who emigrated from Ghana to receive treatment, lives with her grandmother and has not had the benefit of family stability. During Kondla’s sophomore year the two girls got to know each other, but Kondla felt that there was still a barrier between them.

Then, after the summer, Kondla met Erika for the first time since vacation began at the clinic. Erika ran over to Kondla and gave her a huge hug. Then she took her around the clinic, introducing her as her big sister.

The pairings do not always work out as successfully, however. Sara Sahm (COL ’02), who started working with the program last semester, was paired with a young boy, but switched this semester to Stacey. The reason for the switch, Sahm said, was that the little boy was not comfortable with a girl as his OPUS volunteer. The new match has worked out very well, however, and Stacey is already calling Sahm her big sister.

Stacey is on a chemotherapy treatment cycle where she stays in the hospital for two weeks and goes home for one week. While she is in the clinic Sara visits her everyday for about an hour.

Volunteers discuss any problems with the program at their monthly meetings. “The meetings are really helpful and informal,” said Sahm. “The meetings particularly help new volunteers because kids on chemo have bad days and good days and if you are not used to it, it is helpful to talk to other people who have experienced the same thing.”

Watson hopes that in the future the program can be extended. “I know that in many ways it is horrible to want the program to get bigger since that means there would have to be more children with cancer, but it is such a rewarding experience that perhaps it should be extended to other areas of the hospital as well.”

The bonds among big and little siblings makes the program an uplifting, not a depressing, one. “The best part is seeing when the connection works; it is such a thrill to the university student really make a difference in the life of a sick child,” said Bush.

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