Fifth-graders from St. Margaret Mary Catholic School in Omaha made an unselfish use of their snow day Wednesday, gathering outside the hospital room of classmate Lauren “Lolo” Hacker, who is battling leukemia.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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By Erin Grace / World-Herald columnist
They made some signs. They bundled up. They rode down Dodge Street.
And when they piled out of minivans and SUVs, they ran onto the front lawn of Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.
Into the snow.
They plopped onto their backs, eyes on the sixth-floor hospital room of their classmate Lauren.
Then they furiously whipped their arms up and down and their legs back and forth in an effort to will Lauren Hacker back to her seat in Miss Johns’ classroom at St. Margaret Mary Catholic School.
They spread their angel wings in the snow and sent their angel thoughts up to where Lauren stood, watching.
Lauren — “Lolo” to her friends — was just a regular kid until one December day.
On Dec. 12, she became a kid with cancer: acute myelocytic leukemia, subtype monoblastic.
Translated, this is a fast-growing cancer that starts inside bone marrow. It is more common in adults than children, more common in males than females.
Lauren had fainted in school last November. She had been out sick with what her mom thought was the flu in early December.
When Lauren’s fever was 103 for the fourth straight day, when the volleyball player with long hair the color of strawberry honey didn’t feel like getting up, tests were run.
LesLee Hacker was teaching a science lesson at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic School when her phone rang. A former colleague at Children’s was on the line. LesLee, who holds a master’s degree in pathology and who had spent 18 years looking at the lab work of very sick kids, knew the news would be bad. And it was.
She declined a ride to Children’s, driving alone instead. She screamed all the way there.
The hours blurred into days and weeks. Better hours and worse ones. Better days and terrible ones.
Lauren started a massive 10-day dose of chemo, administered in part through a spinal tube. She has endured six spinal taps and a machine to push oxygen into her lungs. Twice, in what is a painful procedure, hospital staff have pushed a large needle into her hipbone to extract bone marrow.
Her fever shot up to 105. She got pneumonia. A young parish priest administered the sacramental Anointing of the Sick and has come every day to visit.
LesLee stopped wearing a watch; time didn’t seem relevant. She quit her job. She practically moved into Lauren’s hospital room, sleeping there every night on a cot. Her husband, Phil, a retired Air Force major who works as a civilian at Offutt Air Force Base, ran things at home. Each night he visits the hospital with their son, 13-year-old Jonathan, an eighth-grader at St. Margaret Mary.
Jonathan can make Lauren laugh. Like the time he made the floppy giraffe hanging above Lauren’s bed “dance.”
Giraffes are Lauren’s thing, and Jonathan placed Ginger, a 4-foot-tall stuffed one, at the right side of Lauren’s bed to guard against the phlebotomists.
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Lauren Hacker, in her fluffy heart bathrobe and pink knit hat, undergoes chemotherapy at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha. ERIN GRACE/THE WORLD-HERALD
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The family spent a quiet Christmas at Children’s. Because of the risk of infection, visitors have been limited to family and a few of her friends, who must wear masks. These have included Lauren’s hairstylist, who cut Lauren’s long locks when her beautiful hair matted and fell out in clumps two weeks after chemo started. Combing it hurt.
“Just cut it off,” Lauren had said.
She went home briefly in January, wearing her IV fluids in a backpack.
St. Margaret Mary’s parish has rallied around the family. Meals. Rosaries. Cards. Twice-weekly treats for the floor staff. A coming blood drive.
LesLee Hacker has kept a near-daily journal on the nonprofit blog site CaringBridge. Pat Johns, Lauren’s teacher, kept a stuffed monkey on Lauren’s chair, a whimsical placeholder. Lauren has been able to visit Room 212 via Skype.
“The hardest thing for Lauren is not to be connected,” LesLee said. “This isolation is overpowering.”
What happened Wednesday was a bit spontaneous.
The unexpected snow day thrilled nearly every kid in town.
But not Lauren.
A snow day, with sledding and hot cocoa and cold cheeks, would be yet another thing she was missing.
Nurses had prodded Lauren to sign up for Make-A-Wish, the gift-giving foundation for sick kids. But the 10-year-old just wanted to get back to normal. See her friends. Go to school. Get better and quit throwing up applesauce. Lose the IV cart.
No foundation can make that wish come true.
But one of the fifth-grade moms, Kim Root, had an idea. She checked with LesLee, who loved it. Kim shared it with other moms, who shared it with their children.
The kids made posters that said things like “Go Lauren!” and “Lolo, go!” and gladly took their snow day to a patch of ground fronting West Dodge Road east of 84th Street.
At 4 p.m., LesLee told Lauren to look out her window.
There was Kiley Root in her frog hat. There was Annie Compton. There were J.J. and Owen, Lucy, Barrett and Callie. Moira, Meredith, Ethan and John. Stephen, Raymond, Emma and the other Lauren. And 17 others.
Lauren looked at her mother.
“It’s your class,” LesLee said.
She helped Lauren stand on her cot so she could see and wave.
Lauren laughed. She beamed.
The kids were throwing snowballs. They were jumping up and down and waving their signs. They were dancing Gangnam Style.
They had painted a message in blue on the snow: “Lolo’s Angels.”
Eventually, the band of fifth-graders paraded inside.
They donned masks. They stood still as statues. And they looked up at the second-floor atrium balcony and waved.
There was Lolo in her fluffy heart bathrobe, purple slippers and pink knit hat. She carried an IV pole.
There was her mother, LesLee, eyes filled with tears.
Three girls were chosen to give Lauren the homemade signs, together with another 4-foot giraffe.
“It’s still Lolo,” LesLee told the somber-faced girls.
“So … have you been able to eat the gum balls yet, Lauren?” asked a girl named Annie.
“It’s not as fun seeing a stuffed monkey in your chair,” said a girl named Meredith.
A third girl smiled.
“It’s really fun to see her,” said the girl named Hope.
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