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Patient Stories

Parents Give Back So Other Kids Who Get Cancer Can Be As Lucky As Their Luke

Luke at home
Luke standing in front of all his get well cards.

At first, Joe and Melissa weren’t concerned. It was the week after Christmas, and with all the excitement and treats of the holiday, five-year-old Luke’s upset tummy seemed par for the course.

But by dinnertime on New Year’s Eve, Luke was in serious pain. Joe and Melissa thought it might be appendicitis, so they took him to the ER, just to be safe.

“At four in the morning after a battery of tests,” remembers Joe, “a doctor came in and said Luke’s appendix was fine. But there was something else. Luke might have some form of cancer.”

From that moment, things moved quickly. Three teams of doctors were summoned, more tests were conducted, and soon Luke was diagnosed with Stage 3 Sporadic Burkitt lymphoma, a rare, fast-growing cancer.

Luke’s treatment started immediately. He would need intensive chemotherapy over the next three months.

“It felt like getting hit by a truck,” Joe says. “Your whole world is suddenly different.”

How does a child get through intensive cancer treatment?

From the very first medical meeting, Teresa Kristoff and Max Williams were deeply involved in Luke’s care. As part of the Child Life team at YNHCH, Teresa and Max help pediatric cancer patients understand and endure what’s happening to them using games, toys, and other age-appropriate activities.

Five rounds of chemotherapy, a host of painful side effects, and two full months in the hospital took a heavy toll on Luke and his family.

Luke celebrated his sixth birthday last April in the hospital with his little sister Lucy. Decorations and toys by the Child Life team!

“The side effects were rough,” says Joe. “But the toughest thing for Luke was being isolated and bored.”

That’s where the Child Life team came in. Teresa (Child Life supervisor) was there every step of the way to explain to Luke what would happen, using cute picture books and stuffed animal “patients.” And each time Luke was admitted to the hospital for another week of chemo, his room sported a “Welcome Luke!” sign and toys or a Super Mario (a favorite Nintendo game) pillow.

Max, the team’s Gaming and Technology Specialist, was always there to make sure Luke was entertained and mentally engaged with interactive video games. “Whenever Luke was with Max,” says Joe, “I felt like I had my regular kid back — playing, happy, and smiling.”

It was a five-month nightmare, but Luke made it through his treatment with flying colors. As of this month, Luke has been cancer-free for nine months.

How to say thank you

Melissa and Joe are profoundly grateful for the care Luke received at YNHCH — especially from the Child Life team. And they found a meaningful way to show it.

Using the hospital’s super-simple DIY toolkit, Joe set up a personal online fundraising web page to support the Child Life team in their work to help pediatric cancer patients and their families get through the worst time in their lives.

Already, they’ve raised more than $32,000. “If this can allow Child Life to treat 20, 10 — or even one — kid the way they treated Luke,” says Joe, “it will be so appreciated!”

You can make a real difference for patients with your own DIY fundraising webpage. Just choose one of our many funds to support (anything from Child Life to the Breast Cancer Program to YNHCH Dogs in Residence), set a dollar goal, and click the "Create A Fundraising Page" button. You'll be up and running in minutes. "It was so easy to do!" says Luke's dad, Joe. "They show you how to share it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. It's really great!"

Learn more about how you can give to Yale New Haven Health.