More than 750 past and present pediatric hematology and oncology patients gathered to celebrate ‘A very Jedi Christmas’ in what turned out to be the largest crowd the event has seen in its 23 years.
Yoda, Darth Vader, Princess Leia, Boba Fett, Luke Skywalker and a yearly favorite—a doctor dressed as a fairy—proved to be highlights of Wednesday’s event hosted by Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital staff at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
Christmas music played in the background, and the carousel ran at full speed as smiles and laughter abounded.
Star Wars characters of all shapes and sizes wandered the halls, offering photos with patients. And doughnuts—chocolate, sprinkles, glazed, you name it—was what’s for dinner.
“It should be a night to remember for sure,” said James Fahner, MD, division chief for hematology and oncology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. “The Star Wars meets Santa Claus staff play is an absolute riot. The costumes are awesome; the acting is dreadful (which we love, as always!) and the story is impossible to summarize, except that it is hilarious.”
Enter R2D2, Yoda, Chewbacca and C-3PO–all coming down the chimney of an unassuming household getting ready for bed on Christmas Eve. “I hear something! Quick, let’s hide next to the Christmas tree,” Yoda says. In pops Santa from the chimney. He eats the cookies and drinks the milk and his elf follows him in with a bag full of presents.
“It appears that all of these kids asked for Star Wars characters, Santa,” the elf says as he unloads his bag. “But wait, these parents must have already fulfilled the request. There are life-size Star Wars characters already under the tree … much larger than the ones we have brought. I guess it’s plan B. A Christmas sweater and socks for these kids,” the elf says with giggle.
The children listened attentively during the performance. Patients whispered to one another, trying to figure out who the staff members were behind the costume makeup. “I think that is Dr. Foley, but can’t quite tell from the costume,” said one child to another excitedly.
The group then performed a rendition of Watch me Whip, Watch me Nae Nae during the performance.
“We look forward to this so much every year,” said Darcia Black from Grand Rapids, mother of Josie, 5, who is in remission after being treated for a brain tumor. “My daughter was diagnosed with cancer when she was first born, and we love to come see the staff and be a part of this wonderful community.”
“We always wait to see the sugar plum fairy,” Black said, referring to Dr. Fahner’s annual tradition of gracing the stage in a pink tutu and spreading glitter and confetti on young onlookers. “It’s one of our favorite parts.”
This was the first party for 15-year-old Schuyler Kleibusch, who was recently diagnosed with stage 3 lymphoblastic lymphoma.
“I was sitting in my room earlier today and thought, ‘Oh, a Christmas party … this should be cool,'” he said. “I had no idea just how cool it would be, though. It’s just awesome to be able to get out of the hospital. Right now I’m in a light phase of treatment, so we can do a lot more things with family.”
Jana Jones, Schuyler’s mom, said he’ll need to do once-a-week treatments for two more years.
“Events like this really give us something fun to look forward to in the midst of a struggle,” she said. “It’s great to connect with the people who are your new family—the staff at the hospital—and to have fun together with them.”
Chasity Kopernik, mother of 6-year-old Jenna, said they have been attending the party for three or four years. Her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia and has been in remission for about five years.
“I like to try and find the positive in every day,” she said. “There is something happy that comes from everything. Something good happened for our family, and positive thoughts really can bring positive results. I wish that for everyone here this evening.”
What makes the night really special, said Child Life Specialist Audra Holst, is the fact that these families can all come together outside the clinic to celebrate together.
“There are families here tonight who have lost a child, and continue to come each year, as well as survivors who have children of their own now,” she said. “Nothing about these families’ lives is normal. This event gives them a fun and carefree night away from the hospital.”