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Strong Medicine, from the Heart

January 20, 2019
Emerson Hospital hospitality volunteer Lisa Hachey holds the card that Naka Infusion Center patient Walter Burke, of Woburn, received from McCarthy Middle School sixth-grader Hailey Graybeal. Hailey was one of about 30 students in reading specialist Nancy Belanger's classes to make cards for cancer patients during the holidays.

CHELMSFORD -- When he got out of surgery to remove cancer from his colon in December, Frank Larkin was heartened to see a lovely card telling him to “Be strong.”

They were the same words Larkin’s daughter, Janet, had said to him right before he went into the operating room at Emerson Hospital in Concord.

“I was right at probably the worst stage of this whole experience, just having been operated on, and I was talking ragtime a lot,” Larkin, of Acton, said Thursday. “I was out of it, but I do remember the card, and I was wondering who this little kid was that sent me the card.”

“The problems I had at the time were just overbearing,” he continued. “It was like a little light in a big, dark room.”

The cards, delivered to cancer patients at Emerson’s Naka Infusion Center just before the holidays, came from fifth- and sixth-graders at McCarthy Middle School.

Reading specialist Nancy Belanger said she likes to do letter writing projects with her students every year -- past cards have gone to military members overseas and hospitalized veterans, for instance -- and this one had special significance. She said the idea came from her own visits to Emerson, in support of her sister-in-law, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

“I’ve lost my sister to breast cancer, and I’ve lost my father to cancer. So it resonates with me, obviously,” Belanger said. “It affects more than just the patient -- it affects the families as well.”

Some of her students also have personal connections -- fifth-grader Joey Nordengren, 10, said his uncle is going through cancer now.

Sixth-grader Stefon Auguste, 12, who wants to be a pediatrician and help kids with cancer when he grows up, said he was excited about the project because it’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time.

When the students wrote the cards, they didn’t know who would receive them, adults or kids as young as them. They just hoped they could do something nice for somebody else, and make them happy, said fifth-grader Luana Francisco, 10.

“It felt like I was doing something good,” said fifth-grader Sofie Bentley, 10. “I knew a smile would come to their face when they saw the cards.”

They filled the cards with messages of encouragement, corny jokes and wintry drawings like Christmas trees and snowflakes.

“I wanted them to stay strong, and have happy holidays, because it must be really hard for them during the holidays,” Luana said.

Belanger hadn’t spoken with anybody at Emerson before embarking on the project. One day when her sister-in-law was in for treatment, Belanger brought the cards and told the nurse what her students had done. The nurse was thrilled, and pointed her to Nurse Manager Jerry Browne, who immediately approved.

“We took a gamble and it worked out,” Belanger said.

Browne said the center often gets donations of such items as hats and blankets throughout the year, which are valued and appreciated.

“This was so extra special coming from the students, and coming at a time that is difficult for many, especially those going through chemotherapy at the holiday season,” Browne said. “It was quite an unexpected pleasure.”

He said he was struck by the empathy and compassion exhibited by the students. Knowing some patients were really struggling, Browne wanted to distribute the cards immediately. He said they brought joy to the patients and staff alike.

He shared with Belanger some reactions from the grateful patients, and a photo of Walter Burke, of Woburn, with the card made by sixth-grader Hailey Graybeal, 12.

“It felt very special to me,” Hailey said. “Hearing that from a person that has cancer, and hearing that they had a smile on their face and that they were feeling happy by the card that I made for them, it just makes me feel happy.”

Belanger said she also learned one of the recipients had called the school’s main office, hoping to thank the student who wrote it directly.

When Luana heard it was her card that elicited that response, she couldn’t stop grinning ear-to-ear.

“Putting a smile on their face put a smile on mine,” she said. “Making them feel happy made me happy, too.”

Belanger said she wants to make it an annual tradition and get other hospitals involved, and she already has a few other teachers on board to do the same thing in their classrooms.

Browne said he’ll certainly welcome more cards for the patients at Emerson.

“It’s kind of a win-win for everybody,” he said. “It’s an educational process for the students yet it’s a gift for our patients, and everybody grows from it.”

As for Larkin, he said the cancer was contained to his bowels and he doesn’t expect any further complications. He’s finishing up his physical therapy and looking forward to getting out of the hospital and returning home.

He still thinks about the words of encouragement from the young students, and wants to write a note back to them.

“Tell them their card worked,” Larkin said.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.

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