What's in a name? For patients, a piece of history


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On Jan. 29, ironworker John O'Connor applied the names of DFCI pediatric and adult patients onto the beams of the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care.

Katie Hayes knew she was going to be seeing her doctor and getting chemotherapy when she came to the Jimmy Fund Clinic one recent morning. What the 10-year-old didn't know was that she was also going to be immortalized in steel.

Hayes was the very first pediatric patient to have her name spray-painted onto one of the beams forming the shell of the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care (YCCC), the state-of-the-art outpatient care and clinical research facility currently being built on Dana-Farber's Longwood campus. As she, her parents, and other clinic families looked on from the Pan-Massachusetts Challenge Bridge on Jan. 29, John O'Connor of the Boston Iron Workers Union Local 7 leaned off a ladder three floors up in frigid, windy weather to inscribe the first names of children currently in treatment, as well as members of Dana-Farber's Adult and Pediatric Patient and Family Advisory Councils (PFACs) and their loved ones.

Young patients taped posters bearing their names on the bridge's all-glass walls for O'Connor to see, and then waved, cheered, and pointed as they saw "ETHAN," "RONALD," "ANDREA," and others go up on the beams. In the months to come, many more names will join them.

"I think it's cool," Hayes said, clapping her hands with excitement after seeing "KATIE" emblazoned in blue spray-paint. "I bet they saw your blue shirt and wanted to match it," added clinic Activities Coordinator Lisa Scherber, who helped the kids make and tape up their posters. Looking down at her shirt, Hayes smiled.

For all ages

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The painting process was watched eagerly through windows by the patients.

In a way, this is a repeat performance. During construction of the Richard A. and Susan F. Smith Research Laboratories in 1996 adjacent to the YCCC site, construction workers performed a similar honor – painting hundreds of kids' names along with smiley faces and messages like "IRONWORKERS THINK YOUR GREAT."

The workers were so moved by the children who peeked out at them from the clinic windows that they "passed the hard hat" weekly to collect cash donations for the Jimmy Fund.

"I saw the movie," said Hayes, referring to the award-winning film short, Strong as Iron, that chronicled the 1996 event and was produced as part of the Jimmy Fund/Variety Children's Charity Theatre Program four years later. The memorable film, which was shown in theaters up and down the east coast for several summers, helped spur millions in gifts to the Dana-Farber. The movie trailer is available to view at www.jimmyfund.org/movie.

"When I look out at the Smith Building now, I still see those steel beams and all the names on them," said Scherber, who helped coordinate the name-painting then, too. "It was a totally spontaneous, magical act, and the ironworkers got as much out of it as the kids. Seeing that start up again today brought it all back."

One big change this time around is that adult names are also adorning the beams, starting with "JOSEPH," "BRENDA," and "JOAN." Steel framing will continue into April or May, as the Yawkey Center grows closer to its 14-story height.

"When we told the Adult and Pediatric PFAC councils that patients of all ages would be included, they were very excited and sent us back dozens of names," says Deborah Hoffman, MSW, LCSW, associate director of the Shapiro Center for Patients and Families. "You certainly don't need to be a kid to get excited about this, and it's a great way of saying we support all our patients and families."

Helen Fantasia, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma patient and an Adult PFAC council member, says that adding adult names was a "wonderful" idea. "It made me feel very supported, and very proud," she explains. "We're all in a battle; some have been through it and are in remission, others like me are just venturing in. But it's great to know somebody is thinking about us."

General Superintendent Brad Forrest of Walsh Brothers, the construction management firm heading up the Yawkey Center project, will work with Scherber and others to get new requests on a regular basis and – when possible – time the painting so that patients can see their names go up. "But it's more than just about names," explains Scherber. "It's about becoming part of the soul of the building where your cancer will hopefully be cured."

Then, as Katie's mom Joelle Hayes reflected, patients who are cured will know a piece of them is still with the hospital that saved their lives.

— Saul Wisnia
Saul_Wisnia@dfci.harvard.edu 

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