Surrounded by IVs and railed hospital beds on this 8th floor pediatric oncology ward of the Hospital Nacional De Ninos Benjamin Bloom (Benjamin Bloom National Children’s Hospital) in downtown San Salvador is a tiny, colorful room. Nearly camouflaged behind the nurses’ station, its shelves are not overflowing, but the books, toys, and materials are well-marked and organized.
Inside this bright, cheerful room are a child-sized table and chairs. It is here in this welcoming, inviting refuge where we find the teacher hired solely for the oncology floor working with three preschool students who are patients here. This is her classroom.
Today during our visit the children act out being caregivers to three dolls they are feeding plastic foods. Other dolls lie beside them, presumably fed or waiting to be fed. Role reversal allows the children some minimal control in their lives during pretend play before they return to their own harsh reality of chemo treatments over which they have no control.
The soft-spoken teacher is gentle in her interacting with the children. She allows them to assume the lead while she facilitates their play themes. “This place is an oasis for them,” she volunteers about this space. They come to express themselves creatively. It is a space devoid of white-sheeted beds and white-coated medical staff. It is a place providing them with relief and distraction from the boredom of treatment. It is a neutral location where the kids can be kids playing with one another.
This floor of the hospital is where Maia and her mom spent 11 long months of their lives while the toddler was being treated for neuroblastoma. Maia’s mom wanted us to witness firsthand the setting, meet the staff, see the conditions in order to more fully understand their reality.
We are privileged to visit and socialize with the patients, their families, and the staff at this hospital. Like children everywhere these kids love posing for pictures which we take with parent approval. All rooms are open to us including those with the gravest cases where the majority of the medical staff hover over patients they are treating with stethoscopes and medical charts. To be part of their world for a short time is an honor.
We do our best to lift spirits of both patients and family members at the bedsides. Staff wear silly hats, such as an alligator, to generate children’s smiles. Our interpreter whispers that he is having some emotional difficulty so I suggest he skip the infant room we are approaching but he got himself together by then.
A friend of Maia’s mom accompanies us today. Her own grandchild died here several years ago while being treated. Like many moms and grandparents whose children have received treatment on this floor, she continues to provide emotional support to the current group of parents whose children now are receiving treatment. She and the other mothers also provide materials for the classroom.
The many young cancer patients in the “oasis on the 8th floor” oncology ward of this hospital appreciate and enjoy their donations.
Editor’s Note: Benjamin Bloom, the benefactor and namesake of this children’s hospital had a child diagnosed with cancer many years ago. Because there was nowhere within the country that his child could receive treatment, the family needed to search for help internationally. His child died during treatment.
He and a group of friends pooled their financial resources to establish a fund for any child in El Salvador to receive chemotherapy treatment absolutely free of charge. If you have read Maia’s story on our website, you know the same regimen of treatment would have cost $2 million. Here at this hospital – FREE. Out of a personal tragedy a legacy was born.
When Benjamin Bloom died, his entire $9 million estate was left to create this 13 floor, modern high-rise public children’s hospital. It serves all socioeconomic classes of the country with no preferential treatment.
We try to remember to take along a few donations for the classroom when we visit knowing how much the children appreciate them. Another of Maia’s mom’s friends from Australia does the same on her annual visits.