Carmel Hannah has worked as an administrative fellow at the St. Louis Children’s hospital since July of 2012. Born in Akron, Ohio, she received a Bachelors of Science from Clemson University and a Masters of Healthcare Administration from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Carmel was instrumental in organizing St. Louis Children’s hospital’s first teen prom that occurred this May. The masquerade theme allowed the patients to hide from their reality and escape into a world of dancing, laughing, and of course, cookies and punch. Nine inpatients plus their dates took part in the magical evening that Carmel believes is on its way to becoming a well-loved tradition.
When I think about adolescents and hospitals, I think about all the experiences they may not get to have. In life, you look back, and you forget a few things. You say, “One time my parents took me horseback riding. One time I went to the arcade.” But prom is one of those milestones you always remember.
In a hospital, it’s so much more difficult to facilitate. Prom is not an event; it is an experience. You don’t just say, “Let’s get a dance floor and go crazy!” Teens typically go to parents’ houses to take pictures, make reservations at local restaurants, have their hair and makeup done, and then they go to prom. But our patients can’t go every which way. How do you create that experience in one place?
I created the Teen Advocacy Council when I first started my fellowship. This council was a collaboration between two existing councils at the hospital: Teen Life Council and the Youth Council. The Youth Council is made up of adolescents with a shared goal of building future philanthropists for the hospital. The Teen Life Council is made up of past and current patients ages 12-21, and aims to enhance hospital experiences for teens. We started meeting on a monthly basis with the leader of the teen life council, child life specialist Courtney Coffman, and the leader of the youth council, Erin Gerlach (who is also a project coordinator with the St. Louis Children’s Hospital Foundation). It was amazing to see two groups with different missions gravitate toward the idea of teen prom, and come together to make it a reality.
For me, when I went into it, I said, ”It has to be big! It’s our first hospital-wide teen prom, it should be big!” But the more I got into it, I thought, “If we get one, that’s one teen that may have planned to go to prom, but got sick and couldn’t. Who’s that teen who, for some reason, didn’t go to her prom, and how can we make this night spectacular for her?”
A turning point for me was Haley. She had to make a choice between going to her prom or high school graduation because of her condition, and she chose graduation. She was the one that made me think, “Ok, now I get it. At first, it was just a dance. But she may not have had this memory had we not done this.” Amazingly enough, we found out the night of her prom was the night we had scheduled our hospital teen prom.
I remember seeing Haley out there in her red dress, wearing a beautiful red barrette in her hair. When I told her how beautiful she looked, she said, “I put the barrette on before I even came. I had no idea there would be dresses here. I just wanted to look a little dressy. This was more than I ever could have hoped for.” I smiled and remembered the day we selected the dresses and how the teens said, “We have to get the red dress!” Little did they know at the time what a difference that red dress would make to this teen.
I could not have done it without my team. We had a teen prom committee made up of teens from each council that came up with the colors, the decorations, music and theme. The leadership team thought it was a good way for our teens to, “Hide for a little bit.” A lot of these teens want to escape from what they’re going through, to take a break. We also decided on Saturday night because hospitalized teens often feel most isolated on a weekend night when they would normally be hanging out with their friends.
The amount of attention this received really shocked me. People reached out to us to say, “I’ll donate my time to do nails, hair and makeup.” We even had an employee, Tracy Ousley, who donated dresses for the girls. Eventually, we had to turn volunteers and services away!
The dance consisted of nine inpatients and their dates. One patient had her boyfriend from outside the hospital come in with a real corsage. The best moment of the whole night I think was when I saw her, in a wheelchair, look up at him and say, “How’s life?”
It doesn’t get sweeter than that. These teens are so accustomed to a routine: I sit in a bed, you visit me, I get treatment. Finally this girl was in an environment where she could ask, “How’s life?”, instead of everybody always asking her how her life is. For a minute there, while she was still a patient, she felt like she was at a normal event with her boyfriend and just wanted to hear, “How’s life?”
Through a year of planning I didn’t know what to expect or what to think, but when I saw them on the dance floor in wheelchairs dancing and having a blast, it was all worth it. Even with the wheelchairs and tubes, they were having an amazing time. For a minute, location didn’t matter, it was how this experience made them feel.
One girl danced so much so that she had to put her head down for a while. Sometimes you have so much fun that you forget where you are. And then moments like this happen: Haley rolled over to her and asked, “Are you ok?” She answered, “No, no, no. Just having one of those days.” And Haley said, “I can understand that.”
This, more than anything else, illustrates the camaraderie among our teens. I don’t believe Haley and this patient are on the same floor I don’t think she even knows her name, but in that moment, she understood. She’s been there and she’s seen that before. In real high school, it’s rare to find someone you connect with. In a hospital, these kids aren’t necessarily friends, their paths would not have otherwise crossed, but here was so much laughing! You would have thought they knew each other.
The whole team was sitting there saying, “Lesson learned for next year! Lesson learned for next year!” None of us saw it as something that was a one-time thing. It isn’t just something that happened and we move on, but we’re looking at it as something that needs to happen again. We are even already hearing people ask how they can help for next year.
We can’t transplant every milestone in a hospital, but we made this as right as we could. At the end of the day, they have to go back to their rooms and back to their lives, but now we are a part of those lives.