Uncommonly Ordinary: An Introduction to the Children's Blood and Cancer Center

Recently, I was fortunate to be granted an informal tour of the Children's Blood and Cancer Center (CBCC), the hematology/oncology arm of Dell Children's Hospital in Austin which serves much of central Texas.

Before I went, three different people asked me if I was worried that I might be walking into a depressing place. In fact, I wasn't remotely worried, but for the wrong reasons. I wasn't worried chiefly because I don't worry about how I will react to any health care facility – I already know I won't like it. Not a fan, that's all.

How I feel about these places says nothing about what I think of the work they do.

Nonetheless, when those of us who aren't in health care imagine a pediatric cancer center, the resulting imagery is difficult. Personally, I imagine the 2013 technicolor and technological equivalent of the famous 1957 photo from Stanford University, featuring the first use of radiotherapy on a patient in the United States:

(No surprise that the first patient was too young to protest. In the early 1950s, what Soviet-fearing adult would willingly stand in front of that thermonuclear-looking zapper?)

My reasons for not worrying were misguided because common sense should have informed me before I left that no caring person would design a children's cancer center around a gulag aesthetic.

Of course it would be upbeat. Of course it would be colorful.

The Children's Blood and Cancer Center is certainly upbeat. And colorful. But that doesn't begin to describe the way this place transcended all expectation.

Make no mistake, it's no two-kegger up there. And it does feature a medical clinic's usual trappings, like a waiting room, a front desk, receptionists busy behind loathsome little sliding glass doors. But beyond that, it really does become an extraordinary place, and over the next few weeks, I'll take a much closer look at how and why, with a focus on topics like:

  • - Nutritional approaches
  • - Survivorship programs
  • - Organized patient events
  • - Clinical research
  • - Extensive family support services

and a few others I'll work out on the way.

One mental snapshot from the tour remains glued to my memory.

After clearing the waiting room and going past the nurses' station, the center opens up a bit, and off to the side there is a large room called the Teen Room. By strictly enforced rule, no one under age 12 is allowed in this room.

I can't actually describe the room in much detail because even though I think the walls were glass and there was no evident door, either the light was off or it was dimmed, bathing it all in a bluish tint. I think I saw a table, a couch or two, a couple unfolded throw-blankets maybe – in short, it looked (and I could be wrong) to be a little cluttered.

Three teens were there. They were sitting around, talking.

Here, in this clinic devoted to treating children with rare blood diseases, was a scene of shockingly spectacular … normalcy.

Strike the table, exchange a couch for a bed, and really clutter it up, and that was my room as a teenager. That was me and my friends hanging out, doing nothing much and being pleased about it.

Enter the uncluttered brilliance of CBCC: For all the medical degrees, knowledge, know-how and training packed into that place (in fact, they should really expand), the area that best spoke to all the incredible things they do there was the area that seemed to be the least dedicated to – and the least interested in – modern medicine.

You know, the way kids are.

This is a special place.

This is the first installment in my series on the Children's Blood and Cancer Center at Dell Children's Hospital in Austin, Texas. The next three are listed below:

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