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Child life specialist makes a big difference for one young patient

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childlife and proton therapy.JPGWhen 6-year-old Allie Alvarado came to MD Anderson's Proton Therapy Center, she was nervous and didn't know what to expect. Her fear, however, didn't last long.

Allie was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue, in her ear following a month-long battery of tests. Allie's mother, Cassandre, first suspected a problem when her daughter's smile seemed lopsided. The culprit was a tumor pushing against the cranial nerve, which caused facial paralysis.

It required six weeks of proton therapy, an advanced form of radiation that precisely localizes the dosage while sparing surrounding structures. It's especially beneficial for complicated tumors and young children since excess radiation can pose problems for developing bodies.

Much needed support
Receiving proton therapy required Allie to lie completely still for one hour, a task that often requires sedation. But thanks to special support from child life specialist Kelly Wagner, Allie didn't need sedation.

Kelly played games with Allie, organized treasure hunts and, during the process, provided much needed comfort and support. These activities educated Allie about the procedures used during her treatment and helped her cope.

"From the moment Allie met Kelly, the two became best buddies," says her mother Cassandre. "Kelly was the only reason my daughter made it through six weeks of treatment without ever needing sedation. It's a pretty impressive feat."

Throughout treatment, the two also participated in Beads of Courage, a program in 160 hospitals across the country that allows patients to record each procedure or milestone with a special bead. It's a meaningful way to remember what happened in a manner that's celebratory, not sad, Cassandre says.

Beads of courage: A surprising honor

Unbeknownst to Kelly, Cassandre nominated her to receive a unique honor -- an Olympic Bead carried by one of the United States athletes at this past summer's games in London. Kelly was selected by Beads of Courage, Inc. for her passion and unwavering support, and was surprised when Allie and her mother delivered the bead personally.

"Having the Alvarado family choose me out of all of the wonderful, helpful staff they encountered during Allie's care is humbling," Kelly says. "I greatly admire and look up to each person who works with these children, so it's an unbelievable compliment."

It's also a fitting end and a powerful symbol of the impact one person can have on a child and her family. 

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