The away team
For 35 teens with cancer, leaving town to see the Red Sox becomes an extraordinary adventure
PITTSBURGH - Dustin Pedroia was the first Red Sox player to duck inside the PNC Park media room last weekend. Out came the baseballs, jerseys, notepads, and pennants waiting to be signed. Tim Wakefield, slated to pitch that night, was next. Pen in hand, Wakefield stopped to have a word with each of the 35 pediatric cancer patients in the room, just as Pedroia was doing.
By the time David Ortiz appeared, the teens were buzzing with excitement. Spotting 14-year-old Absaloms Ochieng of Quincy, who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia, Big Papi patted his own bald head and bellowed, “You look just like me!’’ Ochieng cracked up.
Wakefield put it best. “It humbles you. These kids are fighting for their lives, and we’re just playing games,’’ he said, pausing to sign one last baseball. “So it’s important to come here and put a smile on their faces.’’
The smile on Ochieng’s face, meanwhile, was widening by the minute. A few months ago, he was unable to walk, a byproduct of his cancer treatment. Flying to Pittsburgh and meeting Ortiz? A dream come true. “To come on a trip like this, getting away from your parents, making new friends - wow,’’ Ochieng said softly, clutching a baseball he would not soon put aside.
Moments like these - getting to meet ballplayers they idolize; catching a Sox road game from a stadium luxury suite; consuming all the hot dogs, ice cream, and arcade games any teen could want - will be remembered long after this summer fades to autumn.
For the 35 teens making last weekend’s trip, most of them in active treatment at Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center, these were among the few times in their young lives when fun and games, not treatment protocols, have filled their daily calendars. Now in their ninth year, these twice-yearly, Sox-centric trips have become a highlight of Dana-Farber’s patient and family outreach program - and a life-changer for those who experience them.
“Our first trip, I had no idea how this would work,’’ recalled Lisa Scherber, director of patient and family programs at the cancer center. “The minute I saw those kids in the airport, though, connecting with each other, talking about their medications, showing their scars - I knew we could do this.’’ Nearly a decade later, she added, “It’s become something unbelievable, better than we thought it could be.’’
The autograph sessions and sightseeing excursions are special enough, say Scherber and her team, which in Pittsburgh included six doctors and five nurses from Dana-Farber. Even more precious, though, are the unscripted moments that draw patients and caregivers together in ways rarely facilitated by a hospital setting.
“You get to see a side of their lives you don’t see in clinic, and that helps me be a better doctor,’’ said Dr. Brian Crompton, a pediatric oncologist making his fifth road trip, as he took in the Sox-Pirates game from a double-wide luxury box rented by Scherber for her group.
Sitting beside him was Dr. James LaBelle. Each road trip, LaBelle noted, unfolds in similar fashion, with children overcoming their initial shyness to swap stories with their newfound friends, while barriers between cancer patients and medical professionals crumble.
“To see high-schoolers who’ve had their adolescences taken away, at least the social aspect, basically become normal kids again,’’ said LaBelle, “that’s incredibly rewarding.’’
The three-day trip was not inexpensive. Scherber put the total cost at around $80,000, a tab picked up by private donors, led by Red Sox limited partner Michael Gordon and his family. Nor did the weekend always go precisely as planned. Having no parents along - they’re not invited - added stress, too, on some teens who had never traveled far from home before, or even been on an airplane.
Still, according Scherber and others, travel delays, homesickness, sleeplessness, and upset tummies are all part of the group experience. Should more serious medical challenges arise, doctors don’t hesitate to rush to the nearest emergency room.
Friday night’s departure from Boston by chartered jet was postponed, which translated to a 3 a.m. arrival time in Pittsburgh. Undaunted, the teens and staffers passed the time by organizing airport wheelchair races, beginning a bonding process that steadily intensified as the weekend wore on.
On Saturday, bleary-eyed teens straggled down to breakfast before heading to a local restaurant-cum-video-arcade, where a few hours of skee ball and air hockey perked everyone up. When 15-year-old Ryan DiMambro, who is blind and uses a wheelchair, won a free basketball, he immediately called home to share his triumph. Seeing the joy on DiMambro’s face caused staffers to brush away a few tears of their own.
Nearby, road roommates Leah Tepper and Lauren Durkin were playing an arcade version of “Deal or No Deal.’’ More importantly, they were resuming a friendship that began on a Jimmy Fund trip to Fort Meyers, Fla., last March.
Tepper, 18, has adrenal cancer. Durkin, 16, suffers from a stem cell disorder closely linked to leukemia. Since their spring training trip four months ago, the two teens have stayed in touch through Facebook. When one signed up for the Pittsburgh trip, the other quickly followed suit.
Rooming together a second time “was fate,’’ said Tepper, her close-cropped hair hidden under a blue Sox cap with “DUSTIN’’ written on the brim. Most of her peers, Tepper added, “don’t understand what cancer is, how the treatment goes or what the side effects are. So it’s a big deal for us getting out of the house and hospital to meet people in the same position.’’
She grinned at Durkin, who nodded in agreement. Having been in isolation for nearly a year - Durkin underwent a stem cell transplant two summers ago - she said few people her age fully grasp what she has been through. “I can talk to my brothers, because they have the same disease I do,’’ she said. “But my friends don’t understand. It’s hard.’’
After lunch, the group boarded a pair of buses and headed for the ballpark. En route, Scherber reflected on lessons learned from prior trips. One being, even a short walk from one venue to the next can severely tax a young patient’s stamina; therefore, buses and extra wheelchairs have become mandatory trip accessories. Also, expect the unexpected. For some, unfortunately, that means a last-minute cancellation because of low blood cell counts that make travel too risky.
“It’s a crushing disappointment,’’ Scherber said. “But each year we can take kids who might be a little sicker or have more complex medical conditions. And that’s great for everyone.’’
Once at the ballpark, Tepper and Durkin clutched a Sox banner they had brought along to be signed. When Pedroia approached, they squealed with delight. Tepper doffed her hat for Pedroia, and got a thumbs up in return. By the time he had departed, Clay Buchholz, Terry Francona, Kevin Youkilis, and Jacoby Ellsbury were lining up to come in.
The ballgame didn’t go quite as hoped for, the Sox losing 6-4 despite a late-inning rally. But a visit from the home team’s mascot, the Pittsburgh Parrot, provided yet another keepsake photo-op. Moments before, during the 7th-inning stretch, doctors, nurses, and patients linked arms to sing a chorus or two of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’’ Seldom has the old hardball anthem been delivered with such gusto. In any ballpark, anywhere.
A duck boat tour of downtown Pittsburgh was Sunday’s special treat. Any teen who wanted to steer the boat was encouraged to do so. Ben Finer, a 15-year-old from Brockton, wasn’t about to miss that opportunity. At breakfast, Finer had been discussing the finer points of comic-book superheroes with Crompton and LaBelle. Now, two hours later, he was piloting an amphibious vehicle upriver through the heart of Pittsburgh, on a gorgeous summer’s morning. He could get used to this, said a beaming Finer after relinquishing the wheel.
Scherber, who had seemingly been everywhere for the past 36 hours - reviewing room arrangements, surveying buffet lines, checking on medication schedules, hugging Sox players she has come to know well - took it all in with a smile.
“The stories that come out of these trips are magic,’’ she said. “These kids change, every ounce of them. They come home stronger. They come home with hope. They come home with friends.’’
Meeting players like Pedroia, Ortiz, and Youkilis was merely “the icing on an incredible cake,’’ she added.
“It’s really about getting these kids away from their cancer for a second, a moment. Making them feel they’re not alone in this. That when you’re surrounded by friends, you can get through anything.’’
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.