HEADstrong volunteers treated patients and their families at HUP to a Thanksgiving feast. Photo credit: HEADstrong Foundation
Millions of Americans hit the road (and the airports and train stations) to spend Thanksgiving with loved ones … more than on any other day of the year. But, for those visiting family members in the hospital this day – and others coming up in just a few weeks -- the holiday spirit can be sadly missing. That’s not the case for patients receiving cancer treatment at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, though. For the past 10 years, the HEADstrong Foundation has helped make the holiday experience a good one for all of these patients, their families, and staff.
HEADstrong was the brain child of Nick Colleluori, a charismatic young man who battled -- and eventually succumbed -- to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at HUP in 2006. From his bed, he created an organization that would help raise awareness of the disease and reach out to help other cancer patients and families. Shortly before he died, he made his family promise to bring his vision to fruition. (Profiled here in The Washington Post)
And they have more than kept their word. The Foundation has raised more than $9 million, some of which has provided grants to more than 13,500 patients to pay expenses like mortgages and copays, as well as travel-related costs to and from the hospital. “We used our experience from when Nick was sick,” said Cheryl Colleluori, Nick’s mother who serves at president of HEADstrong. “There’s no greater reward. Every patient inspires me.” The money they raise has also funded research for blood-cancer disorders, including $455,000 for the Nicholas E. Colleluori Lymphoma Research Fund at Penn’s Abramson Cancer Center (ACC).
The annual Thanksgiving visit to HUP is a tribute to Nick, Cheryl said. It was his favorite holiday. “HEADstrong is unique. We have walked in the shoes of every patient and every family spending the holiday on these floors, and we want them to know they are not alone.” Indeed, it was at HUP that the family shared their last Thanksgiving with Nick, who died two days later.
This year, members of the Colleluori family and more than 30 volunteers set up banquet tables in the conference rooms on each of HUP’s oncology floors and covered them with fall decorations and homemade cards created for patients by elementary school children. The meal, which was served buffet style, included all the holiday favorites – turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, veggies and dessert.
Volunteers at the meal included not only outsiders wanting to give back but also cancer survivors treated at HUP who remembered the visit when they were hospitalized. A recent article in the Delaware County Daily Times quoted HEADstrong volunteer Joseph Clifford, III, who was treated for leukemia at the ACC in 2008 and recalled how much the HEADstrong visit meant to him while he was in the hospital. “That was, still is, the best Thanksgiving I ever had in my life,” he said. He told Cheryl that “I would be back there working for them next year.” And he has kept his promise. This was his seventh Thanksgiving with HEADstrong.
The visit to the hospital was not just about food (although several people gave it a thumbs up!). Cheryl and cancer survivors visited every patient room, personally meeting patients and families to listen and provide support. They also gave each patient a HEADstrong blanket (which one patient called “super soft, super comfy”) as well as a “comfort” bag which included a toothbrush, toothpaste, and lip balm.
Dennis Kilpatrick, a cancer patient being treated at HUP, has known the Colleluori family for decades. He spent Thanksgiving in the ICU but was able to return to the unit the following day, where a huge cooler of food awaited him and his family. “For what they’ve been through, most people want to just forget. The Colleluoris have made something positive from it,” he said. “For them to bring hope and comfort to so many people…. The whole family is incredible.”
Thanksgiving is not the only HEADstrong outreach at HUP. Volunteers who are cancer survivors will serve an Italian holiday meal on these units on December 18. February brings art therapy to the floors, by providing canvases for patients to paint in the units’ conference rooms. “It helps them focus on something other than cancer,” Cheryl said. “Most important, it gets them out of their rooms. They have a whole different attitude.”
Jazz nights have patients singing and clapping. A magic show, led by a cancer survivor, encourages patients to participate in the tricks. And they also hold BINGO nights, with prizes. HEADstrong will also reach out to individual patients on units. For example, last month, the organization arranged for the Phillie Phanatic to pay a visit to a hospitalized patient during a special birthday celebration.
The Thanksgiving turkey -- brought to “life” by Nick’s brother, Daniel --made an appearance on the cancer units as well.
The organization also created Nick’s House, which provides complimentary lodging for out-of-town patients who are undergoing cancer related treatment in the Philadelphia metropolitan area and their families.
Experiencing Nick’s illness firsthand changed the lives of several people who knew him. Lindsay Christman, a nurse on one of HUP’s oncology floors, went to high school with Nick and remembered him as a “great guy, so caring, a true inspiration.” At the time of his treatment, she was studying math education at Millersville College but switched both colleges and careers after seeing all Nick went through. And she’s not alone. Some of Nick’s cousins also became nurses and now work at HUP.
Meanwhile, this year’s Thanksgiving visit again proved a major success for patients, families and staff. Cheryl said they fed more than any other year and “the patients were still buzzing about it” days after the meal. The husband of one patient said the visit made everyone feel good, even those who couldn’t actively participate in the meal. Another patient said, “You made the unbearable bearable. What a Godsend.”
“HEADstrong makes patients and their families feel like their own family,” said HUP oncology nurse Jacqueline Melliott. “I am not typically here on Thanksgiving but when I follow up with patients and ask them how the event was, they typically smile cheek and cheek!”
Click here to learn more about the HEADstrong Foundation.