A lifetime of hard work and compassion lives on in the Catherine Pappas and Family Pediatric Oncology Challenge supporting the Child Life Program for childhood cancer.

MGHFC Juggling a fast-paced Boston restaurant business, working Saturdays in a soup kitchen and planning to help kids cope with childhood cancer were just a few of the ways Catherine Pappas lived her busy life.

Now her legacy is continuing in the form of the Catherine Pappas and Family Pediatric Oncology Challenge. Mrs. Pappas’s bequest, guided by her surviving family members, will match up to $1.25 million in donations to create the first ever endowment for the Child Life Program in Pediatric Oncology at MassGeneral Hospital for Children. Mrs. Pappas died in January 2015.

Catherine Pappas childhood cancer
Catherine Pappas left a legacy of compassion and hope for children and their families.

The Pappas family hopes others will join them in supporting the Child Life Program, which is dedicated to creating a therapeutic, comfortable and engaging family-centered environment for patients undergoing treatment for childhood cancer.

Child life specialists are trained experts who help children and families understand medical procedures and provide children with opportunities for self expression to help them cope and feel less anxious. These services are not covered by medical insurance, making philanthropic donations crucial.

“It is so important that children and their families find a safe and comforting environment when they come to MGHfC,” says Howard Weinstein, MD, chief of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology. “Our child life team is highly trained to educate and nurture our patients throughout the process of treatment and to create a positive and empowering experience for them.”

A Family-Friendly Place

Child life specialists Heather Peach, MS, CCLS, and Caroline Armington, MS, CCLS, explain that children and families coming in for diagnosis or treatment are walking into the unknown. Medical language, procedures and equipment are all new, can be confusing and may feel threatening.

The Child Life Program is dedicated to creating a therapeutic, comfortable and engaging family-centered environment for patients undergoing treatment for childhood cancer.

To help create a child and family-friendly setting, child life specialists use teaching dolls, preparation books, iPads and both play and real medical equipment to explain procedures and to learn about the children’s coping styles, misconceptions and fears.

“Children take things very literally,” says Ms. Peach, who founded the program in the clinic in 2004, “so it’s important to be careful about our choice of words.”

For example, Ms. Peach says, a clinician taking a blood sample might say to a child, “We’re going to take your blood.” But the child might think, “They’re going to take all my blood!” Reducing their confusion and educating them about their medical experiences helps make their medical treatment journey a more positive one.”

Calming a Girl’s Fears

Childhood cancer involves many steps in diagnosis and treatment that can be challenging for children to manage. That’s when child life support becomes an integral part of care. Ms. Armington describes a 4-year-old girl who comes to the clinic regularly for cancer treatment.

 Child Life expert Caroline Armington
Child life specialist Caroline Armington, MS, CCLS, works closely with children to help them understand their medical treatments and calm their fears.

In the waiting room, the girl usually makes a beeline for her favorite shopping cart full of toy food and dishes and begins to play. But one day recently, when the time came for the girl to be called in for her appointment, she was reluctant to leave the waiting room. She wanted to keep playing.

To help her transition from the waiting room to her appointment, Ms. Armington joined her in playing with the shopping cart and gently steered her down the hallway into an exam room while they played.

Paying Attention to Comfort

Upon entering the room, they set up a picnic on the bed, using the items from the shopping cart. “As her imagination was engaged,” recalls Armington, “she focused on playing while the nurse was able to take a small blood sample. The girl showed no sign of distress.” Following this procedure, Ms. Armington started a medical play session, giving the girl a chance to play the role of the clinician. With the use of a stethoscope, syringes and other medical tools, Ms. Armington helped her gain a sense of control and mastery.

The Pappas family understands that this kind of attention to the comfort of hospital patients and families makes all the difference. When Catherine’s husband, Stephen Pappas, was treated for a brain tumor in 1994 and 1995 at Mass General, Catherine and other family members spent many hours a day by his side at the hospital.

Going forward, the Pappas family hopes to inspire others to join them in creating a permanent endowment to keep the Child Life Program going indefinitely.

In his memory, she funded the Stephen E. and Catherine Pappas Center for Neuro-Oncology at Mass General, which continues to offer the most advanced care for patients with brain tumors and nervous system tumors. Mrs. Pappas was honored at the one hundred event in 2008.

Support for Childhood Cancer

Currently, her legacy includes three years of support for the Fund for Families at MGHfC, which aids families with children being treated for cancer.

Going forward, the Pappas family hopes to inspire others to join them in creating a permanent endowment to keep the Child Life Program going indefinitely. That too, is part of Mrs. Pappas’ legacy. “She had spirit and energy and passion for motivating others,” says a family member. “She always liked to involve and excite other people in what she was doing.”

To learn more about the program for childhood cancer, visit the web page for the Pediatric Hematology and Oncology Child Life Team.

For more information about the Catherine Pappas and Family Pediatric Oncology Challenge please email Meagan Coons in the Mass General Development Office.