My first Alternative Break at CMU as a sophomore for the winter break issue has already made such a huge impact on me. To further my passion in the healthcare field while volunteering & pursing my vision from LeaderShape (“All Hurt All Cured”), as I continue to take baby steps towards my vision of making healthcare free or less expensive. I will be volunteering at two different places in New Orleans from December 13th-December 21 as we will be working with the Children’s Hospital Of New Orleans & The Audrey Hepburn’s CARE Center.
The Audrey Hepburn Children at Risk Evaluation (CARE) Center is a comprehensive child abuse center providing state-of-the-art pediatric forensic medicine evaluations in a home-like setting. Beyond providing clinical excellence in child abuse forensic medicine, the CARE Center is active in treatment, consultation, prevention, training, education and research.
After the 16 hour drive to NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana), we got to spend the entire day exploring the city or what seemed like an entirely different world! Besides the fact that it’s 70 degrees out in December & the Southern accents of course! Our first stop was at the New Orleans Museum of Art which had so many beautiful and interesting sculptures. This was the first time experiencing the “honey” and “baby” names everyone used which I associate with the southern hospitality. Downtown Bourbon street was small with loud music out of every building, voodoo, art, drag, & lots of clubs. I also got to try jambalya, traditional food in NOLA, which is basically spicy rice and meat. You never realize what you have until you experience what you don’t have. St. John’s created a safe, country loving, & protected upbringing. I could never imagine living in NOLA as a toddler seeing all the drunk people walking the streets, the strip clubs & bars, uncensored shops, & homeless people. NOLA has made me realize how lucky I was to be raised in my small SJ town.
We were so lucky to stay in the St. Jude’s Community Center for less than $12 a night including every meal which is insanely cheap down in this tourist city. It was also only 30 minutes from the hospital and in the middle of everything in the town making it easy for us to walk from place to place every night. They were also housing another group from California that was building houses for the week. So we stayed with strangers in a room of 50 bunk beds for the first time in AB history. There was also a baby shower happening in the dining area when we first got there. It was the first baby shower I’ve ever been to that had a marching band come to play. Got a little sun kissed & culture shocked the first day! The next morning, I woke up to grits which another traditional food in NOLA which is like oatmeal but way more butter and harder substance (the only food I didn’t like).
Our officially first day of service was spent doing trainings. I’ve been trained in the “Darkness to Light” Stewards of Children (seeks to prevent child sexual abuse), general hospital volunteer, & the “art cart” (also known as the mobile playroom which has toys, crafts, & books to deliver to each child at the hospital). Even though the day was a long day of trainings, I was so excited about the upcoming week! I’ve learned so much about Hurricane Katrina, traditions, & the 3 week long Mardi Gras celebration thanks to our amazing volunteer coordinator from the hospital, Nancy. That night, we got to explore downtown a little more. We tried their traditional dessert, beignets, which is a fried doughnut covered in powdered sugar. Although a messy dessert, it was very good! Finished the night off by supporting the Saints football as they were going into the playoffs.
The next morning, I got to push around this mobile playroom called the art cart which is full of books, board games, arts & crafts, & coloring books to all the rooms. Met so many amazing children & even got to play a couple games with the babies & cancer patients. After that, I was one of “Santa’s little helpers” by taking photos of the families coming to make a gingerbread house! Two of my favorite things; taking pictures with a professional camera & helping with Therapeutic Recreational events. The hospital put on continuous Christmas events to help cheer up the kids through this difficult holiday time and help the parents out. As I was taking pictures, I met one of the elf’s that was in the pictures with Santa who apparently appeared in American Horror Story season 3. I also saw all the happy faces of the children as they put as much icing and candy on their houses as possible. Then I saw one of the most inspiring things I have seen in a long time, a young teenager was being helped walking around the room. He went around the room a couple times and the last time you could see him starting to get shaky. The trainer was asking if he wanted to stop but everyone could see the determination in his eyes as he wanted to go around one more time. This was so inspiring to me to keep pushing through when times get tough and that I should be thankful for my health and ability to do simple tasks like walking. After the service, we went out into the town again to do some more exploring and souvenir shopping down Canal St. The palm trees lining the streets were wrapped in lights which illuminated the entire city. We went to get some dessert from a place called pinkberry, it was a high upscale yogurt yeti. They did the making and we did the telling of what frozen yogurt you wanted and however many toppings we wanted with no extra charge.
The next day was another Christmas party for the children put on by the state troopers. They bought and were donated hundreds of presents to pass out to the children. We set up the party and carried the presents up to the party along with to each floor who had patients in isolation who couldn’t make it to the party. We set up all kinds of crafts to do with the children and parents after they got their presents too. While making Christmas ornaments, I met one incredible mother. She has a little girl who was diagnosed with leukemia & has been in the hospital for 4 weeks. She has two older children & one on the way who she will be giving to her mother-in-law that is unable to give birth to her own. She also has an un-supportive father & none of her family members will come visit their niece. Such a strong woman with everything she has & will be going through! I also met another mother with a baby who has glaucoma. I learned that she was in a sorority and still is very close to her sisters and cannot wait to bring her adorable baby with the cutest, biggest blue eyes. As I was talking to both of the mothers, I saw this little boy walking really well with a prosthetic leg. To see such a young boy walking so well with a body part that wasn’t originally there, was so inspiring. After the party, I was so lucky to be able to observe not only one but two surgeries! The first one was a teenager who had cancer on his tibia. They had to remove his staples, mold a cast, bandage his skin graft, put on a cast then remove the anterior side (where the tissue was removed at). So I saw everything to ever see in one surgery! The second surgery was on a baby for glaucoma in both of his eyes. To see the surgeon cut into his eyes, layer by layer, was absolutely incredible. Both surgeons in the surgeries were very welcoming and willing to let me know what they were doing and why. It was so nice to meet surgeons who care about our education and are that helpful. Definitely a jaw dropping moment that day! That night, we went out to District Doughnuts, a new shop that made incredible desserts and waffle fries! We invited Nancy along with her husband and daughter which was very happy and exciting. That night in our reflection with our group, we did the touching activity which is “touch someone who..inspires you, you respect, is smart, represents the group, is humorous…” This activity almost brought me to tears as I felt the mysterious person touch me for things I never thought of myself that way. Ended the night creating a closer bond and inspiring me to keep pursuing my passions.
The last day of service, they bought us king cake which is traditional down South. It was basically in the shape of a wreath, and was a cinnamon roll covered in icing. The tradition is, if you have the baby plastic toy in the bottom of your piece, you have to throw the next king cake party. One of our CMU volunteers got it which means we have to come back to NOLA and throw the party! This day, they had both college football teams, Ragin’ Cajuns and Nevada football, come in to go to each room and meet the patients to give some gear. I got to go with each team and make sure they washed their hands before and after each room and watch each kids face light up. I also got to shadow a Recreational Therapist, Jeff, who was the nicest, most energetic TR person I’ve ever met. I got to ask all of my questions and learn about what it is like to do what he does. This definitely solidified my interest in this career field and to possibly intern in the hospital in the future. I also got to meet two of his main patients, one who was diagnosed with diabetes and one who is suffering with depression and anxiety (both of which are teenagers so it was very sad to see such young people going through such). One of the other volunteers and I were also able to take a gingerbread house to a young boy who just had heart surgery. He didn’t say a word but his smile and the high fives we got from him said everything. Finished the day by doing the art cart through the waiting rooms instead of the patient rooms which is always rewarding! That night we had our AB dinner and we went to a seafood and alligator restaurant. My last bucket list item for this break was to try alligator and it tasted like chicken, very good! The dinner finished the week off with a very laughable and closer group!
One of the most inspiring little boys that I met at the hospital that week I met the first day doing the art cart. He was very excited to play Candy Land although he had troubles gripping his piece because of his recent seizure. Towards the end of the week when I got to see him again, he was waiting for the football players in the main lobby. I got to feel like a TR for the moment and did things like having him give me a high five and knuckle punch me (requiring his motor skills of closing his hands). I also had him pretending to ride a bike and move his legs in the motion while in his wheelchair. After these things, I could see so much improvement in his skills after just the couple of days of when I last saw him barely being able to move. I got him out of his chair and walked him around a little too which was very exciting to connect with him and finally hear his voice for the first time as he laughed.
Our last day in NOLA, the hospital gave us free tickets to see the New Orleans Bowl in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome which was very exciting since we met both of the teams playing each other. We got practically front row seats and an unforgettable experience.
The experience overall was very rewarding, inspiring, and unexpected. To be able to interact with the patients hands on, try all the traditional food to NOLA, shadow the people who are in each of our future career paths, and see surgeries was beyond amazing. We all were expecting the patients to be sad and it was the exact opposite, they were all very happy and determined children. I am so beyond thankful for this experience as I was able to pursue my passion in health further and continue to volunteer.