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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Kids Dying of Cancer

Posted by on June 21 at 11:04 AM

So I’m not sure why anyone would want to see a 4-hour documentary about children dying of cancer, except I think I’m going to watch it tonight, so perhaps you too are a sadist or a masochist or some unthinkable combination thereof.

A Lion in the House, which played at this year’s SIFF and had a repeat screening at Northwest Film Forum, is being broadcast on PBS (KCTS Channel 9, if you’re in Seattle) tonight and tomorrow at 9 pm. Here’s The Stranger’s capsule review:

This exhausting, heartfelt, meticulous documentary, filmed over the course of six years and lasting 230 minutes, follows five families in and out of the cancer ward at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Through the brutal, unrelenting cycle of remission and relapse—of strokes and brain lesions and fungal infections and lost childhoods—the film focuses not only on the families (whose responses range from heroic acceptance to cheery denial), but also on the doctors and nurses who spend their lives surrounded by dying children. A Lion in the House is heavy and intimate, and unafraid to be unromantic: A little girl tearfully begs to be spared another spinal tap; a grandmother spitefully blames the family doctor for her grandson’s relapse; an overwhelmed mother leaves her dying son alone in the hospital for days as he pleads for her. Part I is when you get to know how awesome and funny and hopeful these kids are. Part II is when the death starts. (LINDY WEST)

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an overwhelmed mother leaves her dying son alone in the hospital for days as he pleads for her

I had the misfortune of spending six months sheparding my 5-year-old son through chemotherapy at Children's Hospital. My wife was fond of saying, "If you think you've got it tough, spend some time at Children's hospital." This was as true for us inside there as anyone. We had the best possible situation. We lived 15 minutes away from the hospital, we had supportive workplaces with flexible hours and co-workers who donated paid time off to us, we had great insurance and a strong support network of friends and family, and it was the hardest time of my life.

We saw so many people there who did not have it near as good as we did. One single mother from Montana had to leave her two healthy kids behind with her mom to come to Seattle for her son's treatment. She had lost her job and had no insurance. She was going to have to declare bankrupcy and lose her house when it was all over. She was all alone in a strange city while her son faced his life or death challenge.

We saw another woman from Olympia whose son had been rushed up to Children's in Seattle upon diagnosis. She called her boss at the convenience store where she worked to apologize and tell him she couldn't make her shift that evening. He fired her over the phone after screaming at her for not dropping off the store keys before she left, so now he would have to come in to lock up. Needless to say she was dirt poor and in addition to facing her son's illness, she was going to have to figure out how to keep her apartment now that she had lost her job and was going to be getting some steep medical bills with no way to pay them.

And while we never left our son alone when he was at Children's (my wife spent most nights there, and we would have an aunt or uncle or granparent stay with the boy so we could spend an occaisional hour or two together), there were a couple kids in the ward who never had visitors. A hospital volunteer would spend an hour or two a day with them, and they would sit in a bed or a chair lethargically the rest of the time. One of them, who was about three, called some of the nurses "mama." Only once did I see that kid's actual mom come in, and she brought six other kids with her, which is probably why she left the sick one alone so much.

There were some happy moments during that time, and I have a funny or heartwarming story or two, but mostly, it sucked, and just typing about it brings back horrible memories.

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