Turning Cancer Treatments into Fairytales
Norah West is an 8-year-old girl with a special gift for singing, reading and acting. Each month, she comes to the hospital for chemotherapy and immunotherapy to manage her neuroblastoma. And each time, Children's Mercy staff are treated to a special performance.
“When I first met Norah, I learned about her love for reading from our school teacher,” said Jenna McCoy, CCLS, Child Life Specialist. Since Norah was an avid reader and natural storyteller, Jenna had the idea to let her do a reading for the staff in the 4 Henson Hall playroom.
The story was Rapunzel, but it turned out that Norah wanted Jenna to read while she acted out the story. “Little did I know what this would turn into,” said Jenna. Norah wore a crocheted Rapunzel wig and performed scenes, at times pulling in people from her crowd of nurses and students to be characters in the story or act things out with her. At the end, she sang songs from the Disney movie “Tangled.” “I don’t think there was a dry eye in the playroom when she sang ‘I see the light’ from the movie,” Jenna said.
That performance was the start of a routine that now happens with every single one of her inpatient admissions. Norah chooses a princess story and brings a dress or outfit to perform in. “Ever since the very first one we come prepared now with the dresses and the wigs,” said Norah’s mom, Holly West.
While the performances at Children's Mercy began early this year, singing isn’t new to Norah, who often starts the day with a song. “When she’s feeling well, we can tell because she wakes up singing,” said Holly, adding that Norah has been singing as soon as she wakes up since she was just shy of two years old.
While singing and performing bring Norah joy, it also brings about smiles and laughs from the unit staff. “We all look forward to Norah getting admitted now so we can be graced with her acting and singing skills,” said Jenna.
Seeing the staff involved in Norah’s performances is a nice break for Holly, whose conversations with the care team is on a more serious level. “I’m always surprised - but not really surprised - at the nurses that get involved in it,” she said, recalling Norah’s very first performance, where everyone in the room was clapping and dancing around and having a good time. “To see these nurses take a break from life on the oncology floor, which can sometimes be really rough, and stop and dance around and smile…to see them let loose is really nice for me,” she said.
Norah has performed Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and most recently, Snow White for the second time. The audience has grown, with nurses and students coming in to watch her in the playroom. “It is a whole group affair,” said Jenna, who shares the role of reading scenes with a patient activity coordinator. “I love that this has given Norah something to look forward to and actually be excited about when getting admitted to the hospital,” she said.
Music Therapy often joins in the performances, including intern Joseph Cooper. “I got to know Norah pretty early in my time here at Children's Mercy for my music therapy internship,” he said. Joseph has played the part of the prince in each performance.
“He is always in every single production,” said Holly. “He is such a good sport,” she said, adding that Norah calls Joseph her best friend.
“These performances have played such a role in normalizing her time here, providing a beautiful and supportive space for musical expression, imaginative play and autonomy,” said Joseph, adding that she usually sings acapella.
“Norah really does love the attention and acting things out,” said Holly. “She’s born to be a star.”
Learn more about the Division of Hematology, Oncology, and Blood and Marrow Transplant at Children's Mercy.
Learn more about Child Life Specialists at Children's Mercy.