music in the park san jose

A small girl with no hair beams with joy as Santa and Mrs. Claus
unexpectedly appear on the oncology ward at Lucille Packard
Children’s Hospital at Stanford.
A small girl with no hair beams with joy as Santa and Mrs. Claus unexpectedly appear on the oncology ward at Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford.

She is speechless with excitement as she walks closer, pulling with her a metal stand that holds bags of intravenous fluids that flow through tubes and needles into her arm.

Santa greets her with a warm, bellowing “Hello” and she shyly turns away. He approaches another little girl, also with no hair, confined to her bed.

“Can you do a ‘Ho, ho, ho’ for me Santa?” she asks meekly.

He stands tall and lets out a bellowing “Ho! Ho! Hoooo!” that fills the room. She later says she knows he’s the real Santa because only the real Santa can laugh like that.

Santa’s two elves pass out large Mickey Mouse dolls to the children on the ward, whose faces, for now, show nothing but pure joy.

At that moment, all is forgotten. The illness that threatens their lives, the nauseating effects of chemotherapy and the sadness their families endure are, seemingly, gone.

“Look at their faces – everybody is smiling,” said Xiomara Smith, a nurses’ assistant on the oncology ward. “This is what they live for – especially in the hospital.”

Some of the children who are willing and healthy enough are allowed to step outside the hospital to see Santa’s entourage. He did not bring reindeer this time, but a caravan of “hogs” from Hollister that rode through the first of the massive storms that hit California two weekends ago.

The children admire the chrome-plated Harley-Davidson motorcycles and some even get to sit on them. One lucky child got a ride around the parking lot.

“This is such a total blessing and such a surprise for the kids,” said Elena Pacheco, a long-time recreation volunteer and bilingual interpreter at the hospital. “It’s Sunday, raining, depressing, and they get this wonderful visit with presents. It makes such a difference. Madison’s visit brings so much hope when parents and children can see someone who has made it.”

Madison Eastman, 12, one of the two elves who handed out the Mickey Mouse dolls, knows what these children feel and what they are going through. She has been to the same ward numerous times as a cancer patient.

She, with the help of the Hollister Independence Rally Committee, is the reason these children had a day with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The Save the Cancer Kids Foundation, established by Madison, and the Hollister Independence Rally Committee created the motorcycle run to bring holiday spirit to children who are battling life-threatening diseases.

A Child with Cancer

Madison was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia when she was 7. Around the same time, another child from Hollister, Merisa Rojas, was also diagnosed with AML and a series of intense, painful visits to Stanford began for the girls.

Madison became best friends with Merisa when they met at the children’s hospital at Stanford in 1997.

Despite Merisa being six years older than Madison, the two became best friends in the confines of the hospital, where they spent nearly a year. They played music loudly and cuddled together while they watched movies and comforted each other through the devastating effects of chemotherapy.

The chemotherapy didn’t stem their cancer, so in 1998, when Madison turned 8, both girls were advised to have bone marrow transplants – a procedure that’s very damaging to the body but can stop the disease that ravages it.

Madison had the procedure, which brought her to the brink of death and back again, with a number of complications – temporary loss of sight for a month, tuberculosis, ulcers and lung deterioration.

“She was a tough patient. That’s why she made it,” said Juliet Underwood, a bone marrow transplant nurse at the hospital.

Four years later, Madison has passed the critical three-year hurdle significant to AML patients hoping for long-term recovery.

“Hopefully we won’t go through it again,” said Madison’s mother Colleen. “But it’s something always there in the back of your mind. You never forget where you were so you don’t forget to appreciate the life you have or the children you have.”

Because of the effects of the disease on Merisa’s body, her physical condition precluded a bone marrow transplant as an option and she died in May 1999 at the age of 14. Her body lies in the section of a Hollister cemetery for burials paid for by San Benito County. Her grave does not have a tombstone.

About twice a month, Madison visits Merisa’s grave, where visitors have constructed a shrine with a wooden cross, an angel and artificial flowers.

The lack of a marker for Merisa’s grave bothered Madison so much that when HIRC asked what she would like for herself, she asked for a tombstone for her best friend. The request surprised HIRC members, who donated the money for a white granite tombstone with Mickey Mouse sitting on the edge of a moon, a shooting star, the dates of Merisa’s life and the words “Merisa Rojas Our Guardian Angel.”

Save the Cancer Kids

Madison wanted to give something to the children who are going through what she went through for years. She had raised money from babysitting and from other small jobs and had bought dolls she planned to give, but it wasn’t nearly enough.

Madison approached HIRC and asked for funds to buy enough Mickey Mouse dolls for all the children on the oncology ward at the children’s hospital. The organization gave her $1,000 to help fund the fledgling organization and organized the Save the Cancer Kids Motorcycle Charity Run.

“We decided to do a little more and thought a motorcycle run would be a nice addition,” said Ellen Brown, HIRC’s executive director.

Although the weather was stormy on Dec. 15, motorcyclists made the ride from Hollister to Palo Alto to deliver the toys, then returned for a party at Hollister Family Bowl with the J.J. Hawg Band. The event raised $300 for a San Benito County family whose child has cancer.

“I like doing all these charity events. It helps out a lot,” said Robert Deluna, a member of the Christian Motorcycle Association, who made the trek to Palo Alto and back.

With the help of Gary Byrne of the Community Foundation in Hollister, Madison and her mother established the Save the Cancer Kids Foundation, a non-profit organization that Madison will help develop for children and their families who are going through cancer.

“When I was in the hospital, I noticed there were a lot of families that were living on the streets and they found out their kids had cancer and they didn’t have any jobs or anything, and I wanted to raise money to help them,” she said.

Madison and Colleen plan more fundraising next year and to build the organization so more children with cancer can be helped. The foundation recently donated computers to children at the hospital and funds to a cancer-stricken girl in Bakersfield they had read about.

But for now, Madison and her mother want to focus on the children at Stanford. They hope to bring Santa and his elves back to the hospital next year – once again, via motorcycle.

“The bikers brought so much joy to the kids, we want to continue to do that,” Colleen said. “Ultimately, we want something that helps kids across the country.”

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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