As a former Child Life Specialist, I had been aware for quite some time that adolescents were a forgotten population in the medical world. I constantly had to tell my teenage patients bad news about everything from diagnosis, to missing homecoming games, to having to share rooms in a packed hospital with a sick two-year-old that never stops crying.
According to the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health, roughly 70,000 young adults between the ages of 15-39 years old are diagnosed with cancer each year in the United States. Even though the medical community continues to make great strides in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, it still remains the number one killer, when it comes to diseases, of children and teenagers in the United States—more than Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, Asthma and AIDS combined.
You would think with numbers like that, hospitals around the country would know how to treat teenagers and understand how the needs of teenagers are different from those of children or adults. That they’d understand that being a teenager is difficult in general, and then getting a diagnosis of a severe illness like cancer on top of it can make things seemingly impossible. Going through puberty, navigating junior high or high school, formulating plans for the weekend (not to mention for college), and now to add in surgery, chemotherapy, hospital stays, meds, and being sick all the time can really rattle the strongest of people. The sad truth is that most hospitals do not understand what teens need or want.
While working as a Child Life Specialist, I frequently had to tell the teen patients that, in addition to going through difficult procedures, we also had no programs or resources for them. The hospital rooms weren’t any better, there never seemed to be that opportune moment to ask the 16-year-old if he or she would rather have a Winnie-the-Pooh-themed room for her 9-week stay or if Mickey and Minnie were sufficient. On one especially bad day at work, when I had seen enough disappointment, I made a promise to myself, I would find a way to provide the programming and resources that these teenagers needed and longed for.
Fast forward to 2011; I was preparing for my first ever Spa Day event at a skin care clinic in Los Angeles. I had achieved my goal, Wish Upon a Teen, the non-profit I had started to help teenagers who were living with severe terminal or life-limiting medical conditions, was up and running. It was my mission to provide programming to normalize their environment to the teenagers that the community was not. My objective for Spa Day was to do more for the girls than just give them a day of pampering. The goal was to bring together a group of girls who were all in treatment for severe life-limiting or terminal illnesses. Many of them were dealing with serious stages of cancer, or awaiting organ transplants. To provide them a safe space where they could hang out, talk, and offer each other support. These girls, due to their medical conditions, were not able to engage in traditional ‘teenage girl’ activities, like hanging out at the mall or going to a friend’s house. With over 15 Spa Day Programs completed in the past four and a half years, we have added several other programs to provide to the adolescent community. This past fall we took our spa days national by launching our Glam Teen Tour, which will bring spa days to teens around the country.
Our Design My Room ™ program went national this year and we are thrilled to offer it in over 47 hospitals across the country. Design My Room ™ is a hospital room-decorating program for teenagers undergoing long-term hospitalizations (two weeks or longer). Most of our teens are in the hospital 6 weeks or longer which makes this program vital to the adolescents we serve. Design My Room ™ gives the teen the ability to take back some of the control that they have lost while hospitalized which will give a domino type of effect by aiding in a more positive outlook, which can then help recovery time and the need for lower pain meds. It’s such a fun program to put together as we follow the teen’s lead with the theme that they choose. They get new bedding, instead of those scratchy hospital sheets and blankets. We put fun wall decals up in their room. They get cozy blankets and pillows to cuddle. Picture frames, rugs, lamps and anything else to bring the element of home to their hospital room.
I am so excited to see where the year will take us and our teens and families we serve. It’s been such a fun ride so far! If you or someone you know is either interested in the programs we provide or becoming a sponsor or donor, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wish Upon a Teen
261 E. Maple Rd
Birmingham, MI 48009