Her prom dress sparkled as Corinne Bass stepped elegantly into the limo.
A gold sequined band decorated her bare scalp and a face mask protected her fragile immune system.
Recovering from a bone marrow transplant, Corinne could not attend her senior prom.
So, she created her own, a personal prom as fun and meaningful as any high school party.
After a short tour of downtown, the limo delivered her to an exclusive venue: Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
The glamorous 18-year-old drew admiring stares as she emerged from the vintage Cadillac and strolled along a red carpet to the hospital entrance.
Staff escorted her to the 11th floor, to a room decorated with a 1920s Great Gatsby theme. Surrounded by caregivers who have become close friends, Corinne danced and laughed and celebrated this rite of passage with a style all her own.
Corinne has learned to make adjustments in her 18-month battle against aplastic anemia.
This latest adjustment left her beaming.
“This is better than a regular prom,” she said
In August 2015, just before her junior year at Manistee High School, Corinne found out she had the rare blood disorder, in which the bone marrow does not produce enough blood cells. She received medication that brought about a partial remission.
Her family moved, and she started her senior year at Mount Pleasant High School last fall. She went to class for only 10 days before she relapsed.
Her doctors ultimately decided a bone marrow transplant would be her best option. She received a transplant in February with marrow from an unrelated donor located through Be the Match national registry.
Today was amazing.
She has spent the past three months in the hospital, with her mom, Heather Wilson, by her side. Far from friends and her three younger brothers, she went through chemotherapy treatments and spent weeks in isolation.
But she kept up with her school work. Sarah Smith, a teacher at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, guided Corinne through her Advanced Placement biology and literature courses.
Smith recently asked Corinne what she would normally being doing at school this time of year.
Prom, Corinne said. That would be on her mind right now, if this were a normal senior year. She had sadly resigned herself to missing the traditions of high school life.
“I was thinking I wouldn’t get to do any of it,” she said. “It’s your senior year. It’s your last chance to get to do all that. It was hard to accept that at first.”
Maybe there’s a way we can make prom happen, Smith said.
They consulted Ulrich Duffner, MD, the pediatric blood and marrow transplant specialist who oversees Corinne’s care. He agreed―and happily joined the party.
Of course, there were restrictions. As Corinne recovers from the transplant, she takes medication to suppress her immune system and prevent rejection of the donated bone marrow. That leaves her extremely vulnerable to infections.
She had moved from her hospital room to an apartment at Spectrum Health Renucci Hospitality House. But she had to remain vigilant about exposure to germs―hence the face mask when in public and the hospital-based venue.
Ball gowns and limos
Corinne became a one-woman prom planning committee. She chose the theme―roaring 1920s glam―and created invitations with an art deco flair.
And then she had to choose a dress.
“That’s half the battle―finding the dress,” she said.
Because Corinne couldn’t go to a store, Smith worked with a donor to create a private shopping experience. She provided four dresses to choose from.
“They were all so gorgeous. It was hard to pick,” Corinne said. “And they all fit.”
She chose a sequined, gold-and-silver number with a fringed hem that looked like it was designed just for her.
Child Life specialist Rhys VanDemark helped line up the transportation. He contacted Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan, to see if it could provide a car that fit the prom theme.
The museum provided a 1949 Cadillac limousine. Jay Follis, the director of marketing, served as chauffeur.
The guest list was tough. Corrine wanted to invite everyone who had cared for her during her treatments. But she had to limit the party to a handful of caregivers.
Smith and Dr. Duffner came to the party, along with transplant coordinators and nurses. As Corinne and her mother entered the room for the party, Corinne broke into a big smile. A sea of sequins, fringe, feathers and pearls greeted her.
She had expected to see everyone in scrubs, but her guests had dressed to impress.
“We’d hoped you’d be wowed by our attire, so you wouldn’t be disappointed in our dancing,” said Veronica Van De Wege, RN.
Cheers for a new immune system
Corinne chose the theme song: “Bang Bang” by will i am. And she led the guests in a choreographed dance.
Jazz hands. Kicks. Heel taps. A kick line. Corinne danced gracefully through the moves, and her guests did their best to keep up.
They ended with a dramatic pose―and bursts of laughter.
“You’re the best prom queen ever!” Vandewege said.
They gathered for snacks―Oreo ice cream cake, chips and sparkling juice.
And there were toasts and cheers.
“To a new immune system,” VanDemark toasted.
“To Corinne, the lovely Corinne, and her mom, Heather, thank you for being lovely and wonderful,” said transplant coordinator Jill Roodvoets, RN. “We are super glad to be a part of this next chapter of your life and all the fun it brings and the new adventures.”
Corinne’s mother raised her glass for one more toast.
“Corinne and I have to cheer all of you guys,” she said. “For getting her life back. For keeping her alive.”
Corinne looks forward to her next steps. She was due to move home the next day. She couldn’t wait to see her younger brothers.
She plans to attend Central Michigan University to study video production. Her experience with medical treatments―as well as the 93 percent on her AP Bio exam―has her thinking about the medical field, too.
“I’m more artistic,” she said. “But there’s a part of me that feels tied to the medical world. I just kind of want to stay a part of it.”
‘A lot more fun’
At last, the party drew to a close. The music stopped. The refreshments were cleaned up. The decorations came down.
Corinne and her mother sat contentedly, soaking it all in.
“This means a lot,” Wilson said. “Since she was diagnosed, she has missed a lot of high school experiences. It’s very important to get to do something like this.”
“It made up for prom, definitely,” Corinne said. “I did go to my junior prom, and I think this was a lot more fun.”
The fun started the moment she started getting ready. After months of wearing hospital gowns and casual clothes, she loved the chance to put on a pretty dress.
She felt deeply grateful for the staff’s efforts to make the prom happen.
“Today was amazing. I think that they went beyond my expectations of what I thought it was going to be,” she said.
“I was so pleased that they were able to take time out of their work day to do this for me. It’s really important because I’ve been with them for so long that they are now like family.”