Carolina students create lasting bonds with pediatric patients

UNC-Chapel Hill students volunteer at the N.C. Cancer Hospital, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s clinical home, to offer friendship and support to pediatric hematology and oncology patients and their families.

Carolina students create lasting bonds with pediatric patients   click to enlarge Grace Brinson with Liz Earley enjoy a moment together in the clinic.
Carolina students create lasting bonds with pediatric patients   click to enlarge Grace Brinson and Sinclair Lennon bond over a game of UNO.

Media Contact: Bill Schaller, 919-962-3405, bill_schaller@med.unc.edu

Amanda and Matt Brinson’s lives were turned upside down in 2016 when their daughter Grace was diagnosed with two rare blood disorders, paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria and aplastic anemia.

The family traveled from their home in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the N.C. Cancer Hospital, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center’s clinical home, for weekly transfusions. Her doctors determined that Grace’s best course of treatment would be a bone marrow transplant. The transplant would require Grace to stay relatively isolated in the hospital to guard against the risk of infection.

“Grace missed her friends back home so much,” says Amanda Brinson. But Grace was lucky, she had two new “pals” to keep her company: UNC-Chapel Hill students Sinclair Lennon and Elizabeth “Liz” Earley. “Sinclair and Liz became her focus for the day,” says Amanda Brinson.

“They really built up a true friendship with Grace,” says Matt Brinson. “It made a big difference in her life.”

Lennon and Earley serve as president and vice president, respectively, of Carolina Pediatric Attention Love and Support. CPALS is a student-run service organization at UNC-Chapel Hill that currently has more than 70 registered members who aim to provide trusting, supportive relationships with pediatric hematology and oncology patients and their families.

“Grace was in her room all day, and she loved having us come to play,” says Earley, a junior exercise and sport science major. “She’d always ask ‘when are you coming back?’ I think it helps give the kids something to look forward to during such a difficult time in their lives.”

CPALS members volunteer in the clinic and inpatient playroom for a semester and then eventually can be matched one-to-one with a patient pal.

“This allows the students to provide direct support and bond with the patients,” says Meghan Fox, LRT/CTRS, CCLS, psychosocial support coordinator and child life specialist for the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology, and CPALS adviser.

CPALS members also assist with fundraisers and special events, but the majority of their time is spent in clinic or with their assigned pals.

Lennon and Earley would play Jenga and UNO with Grace, or board games, activities that helped take her mind off of her treatment and just have fun being a kid.

“For her emotionally and psychologically, having her CPALS was one of the most important things for her during treatment,” says Amanda Brinson.

“Grace doesn’t come as frequently anymore, which of course is wonderful because it means she’s doing well, but we miss her and always come back to visit with her when she’s in the clinic,” says Lennon, a senior exercise and sport science major.

Taking part in CPALS not only impacts the patients’ lives but the students’ as well.

“You always feel very lucky to just be a part of these patient’s lives and to be able to be there for them as they go through treatments and battle cancer,” says Curtin Benson, CPALS member and senior clinical laboratory science major. “Being a 1:1 pal has been one of the most impactful things that I’ve done in college.”

For some students, joining CPALS became a beautiful way to honor the lives of friends and loved ones they had lost to cancer.

Jarret Corder, a senior majoring in journalism, lost four people in his life to cancer while he was in high school. He still wears a green wristband every day in memory of a dear friend who passed away.

“I know how tough things were on him, so I know how much this program means to these kids and their families,” says Corder. “I’ve seen kids at some heartbreaking lows and some hopeful highs, but the thing I learned the most is how precious life is. When I play with these kids, they have very few worries. They’re just kids.

CPALS volunteers form bonds with their patients that often last long past their time at Carolina.

Grace, now a 10-year-old fifth grader, still asks about her CPALS whenever she travels to the N.C. Cancer Hospital for check-ups.

“Grace always says to me, ‘I know Sinclair and Liz were my CPALS, but I consider them my friends for life,’” says Amanda Brinson. 

If you’d like to support CPALS, the group is hosting a fundraiser at the Chipotle on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill on Monday, April 9, from 5 - 9 p.m. to raise funds for scholarships for graduating high school seniors who are patients of the Division of Pediatric Hematology-Oncology at the N.C. Cancer Hospital. Be sure to tell the cashier you’re supporting this cause to make sure 50% of the proceeds will be donated to CPALS.

Written by Brooke Kavit