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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Kids, Grief, Hope

By Tara Kulash and John W. Kennedy
Feb. 16, 2014

A 6-year-old girl in a church children’s group raises her hand to offer her definition of cancer.

“What I’ve heard is that nobody can make you well again, so you’re sick forever,” says Nora Branch. She pauses before adding, “I’ve never had cancer.”

Jennifer Lang, an expressive grief therapist, gives Nora a warm smile and explains to her that sometimes cancer patients don’t survive, but sometimes they get better.

The children’s group at West County Assembly of God in Chesterfield, Mo., is coping with the absence of their friend, Hannah Smith, 10, who has been in the hospital for the better part of the past two years, first with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, followed by leukemia. Lang has helped the class stay connected to their absent friend.

Lang has been an expressive therapist since 2012 with Wings, a nonprofit organization helping patients 21 and younger afflicted by serious illness with their clinical, emotional and social care, regardless of ability to pay for treatment. Expressive therapists use activities to help people process their emotions.

Last year, the organization launched a program called Wings on Wheels, free to the public. Lang drives a brightly decorated green van to schools, churches, homes and social organizations in the St. Louis area to provide expressive therapy for children and young adults experiencing the loss or absence of a friend, teacher or loved one.

Lang has a class or group work on an art project she can take to the ill student or the family of a child who died. For an ill child, the artwork can help ease feelings of isolation from friends. If the child died, it provides a sort of memorial service for the class.

“We think about adults having a community, but we don’t think about kids and their community,” Lang says, explaining the children’s need to stay connected.

The service also helps parents and other adults who may have a hard time approaching children about death or severe illness. Lang gives adults tips for carrying on the conversation after she leaves.

“The natural inclination is to protect our child from it, but that’s not helpful to children,” Lang says. “They need more age-appropriate direct information. Otherwise, they’re going to come up with their own conclusion about it.”

Reassuring children

In July, Lang began her session with the AG children’s group by explaining that cancer is not contagious. She told the children they may hear scary-sounding words about Hannah’s sickness, but some of them aren’t scary at all. Chemotherapy, for example, is the medicine, and remission means the person is better.

Lang told the children it is acceptable to feel a range of emotions about a friend’s sickness. She said it is OK to cry, to be afraid, angry and sad. Most importantly, she encouraged the children to ask questions about what they did not understand.

Hannah’s younger sister, Annaiah Smith, 9, says she was confused when her older sister lost her hair. Annaiah didn’t know how chemotherapy works, but Hannah explained it to her.

Hanna Hasty, 10, says it must be tough for a child to deal with cancer.

“I’m sad Hannah has to go through everything because she’s my age,” Hanna Hasty says. Yet she says her friend’s courage has inspired her to be strong.

At home, Hannah Smith welcomed Lang for a visit.

She had undergone a bone marrow transplant in June and was released three weeks later. Her hair was just beginning to grow back, and she had a prosthetic leg. Hannah said she didn’t think she was the same person she was before her diagnosis.

“Everything changed me, my perspective of life,” Hannah told Lang. “I haven’t figured it out, but I feel it in my gut.”

Hannah confided in Lang about some of the more difficult experiences. There were times when she listened to another patient scream. And a friend she made in the hospital died shortly after a heart and lung transplant.

But Lang’s visits have raised Hannah’s spirits, according to her dad, Wayne Smith, 38, of Imperial, Mo.

Any time Hannah hears the news that Jennifer Lang will be visiting, she jumps up and down and smiles, he says. He was touched that Lang visited Hannah’s church, too, to keep her connected with friends.

“No child asks for this, but they have to go through it, they have no choice,” Smith says. “For Jennifer to be in their lives is amazing.”

Hannah’s dad says talking to Lang gave him a positive attitude.

“She doesn’t just keep it at Hannah’s level,” Smith says. “She talked to all our kids and brought joy to them.”

The important part of the service, Lang says, is to normalize the experience for children so they don’t believe they are alone in their thoughts.

“We use play and art and music,” Lang says. “We add something pleasurable to help deal with something very painful.”

Hannah’s battle

Hannah’s troubles began in December 2011, when she fell on a playground and injured her knee. After testing, doctors discovered osteosarcoma in her right leg. Three days after Christmas that year, Hannah entered St. Louis Children’s Hospital and embarked on a lengthy disease-fighting journey.

West County AG Children’s Pastor Tina Green, a graduate of Central Bible College and Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo., gave Hannah a little lamb that played “Jesus Loves Me.”

“It reminded her through her treatments that if she ever feels weak, ‘He is strong,’” Green says.

The church has helped Hannah and her friends journey together along the unexpected path. For instance, when Hannah’s hair began to fall out in January 2012 because of chemotherapy, the church sponsored a “haircutting party” in which many of Hannah’s friends joined her in having all their locks shorn.

Hannah fought bacterial infections and allergic reactions to medicine during early rounds of chemotherapy. Two spots on her lung were removed in January 2012, one of them cancerous.

Two months later, Hannah underwent rotationplasty surgery in which surgeons removed her upper thigh and knee, then reattached her low leg, backwards, to her hip. The heel became her new knee that enabled her to use the prosthetic leg. Chemotherapy and physical therapy continued through October, 2012.

In January 2013, doctors discovered Hannah had leukemia. That month she endured a bone marrow biopsy and spinal tap. A year ago, doctors found a new nodule in her lung and confirmed osteosarcoma had returned.

Hannah underwent another operation to remove the nodule, and started a new regimen of chemotherapy treatments.

Meanwhile, doctors began looking for a bone marrow match. None of Hannah’s three siblings — 18-year-old Kaitlin, 15-year-old Kaleb, nor Annaiah — fit. The family waited and prayed for a perfect bone marrow match, and one was found in Europe.

Last June, after finishing her second year of chemo, Hannah received a bone marrow transfusion.

Hannah spent most of the second half of last year in isolation, receiving IVs with the aid of a Broviac tube. She recently had her Port-A-Cath removed.

Green, the children’s pastor, is impressed that Hannah has handled her illnesses with steady prayer, laughter and a smile on her face.

“I have seen this little girl grow up the last two years in the toughest, most difficult circumstances,” Green says. “She has had some good days and bad days, but she has kept her faith and looked to God as her strength. She is a very precious young lady, and I am praying that God uses her testimony to impact the lives she touches.”

TARA KULASH is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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