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Prom puts recovery on center stage

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Posted: Saturday, June 12, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 12:30 pm, Wed Sep 7, 2011.

DENVER | Melissa Jones didn’t mind attending a prom ceremony for a third time.

As Jones, 20, went through a familiar ritual June 8 on the 19th floor of the Westin Tabor Center hotel in Denver, it seemed different from the proms of her junior and senior years at Smoky Hill High School. Donning the expensive dress, applying makeup, calming the frayed nerves of her friends in the suite before the dance — all of it felt more comfortable.

A lot of that had to do with how Jones had spent the past year.

“I was diagnosed in October with cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma specifically,” Jones said. “Tommi McHugh, the life specialist (at Children’s Hospital) … she told me about the event.”

Jones joined about 30 other attendees at the Children’s Hospital’s Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders Prom, an event now in its fourth year. Patients from the center joined friends, family and prom dates for the event, which included a full meal, a dance floor and a surprise performance by the Flobots.

As she waited in the suite on the top floor before dinner began, Jones beamed with an infectious amount of warmth and confidence. Her hair was still short, slowly returning after the rounds of radiation, but she showed no self consciousness.

For Jones, the dance had a deeper significance than the ceremonies during her junior and senior years in high school. It was a chance to mingle with others who’d undergone common trials, an opportunity to share a unique connection with peers.

“Everyone here has something in common and the comfort level is so high,” Jones said. “Attending just makes you feel normal and beautiful. Everyone here is OK, as opposed to school where you might be paranoid about people looking at you if you have short hair, like I do.

“It’s interesting. It’s very different from high school,” she added. “It’s so much fun, getting ready for the day, letting loose and having fun.”

The celebration has grown in scope during the past four years, said Tommi McHugh, a specialist at Children’s Hospital. This year, Westin offered the suites, the food, the ballroom and the volunteers free of charge. Other vendors volunteered the tuxes, the dresses, the makeup, hair styling and the decorations. Denver-based hip hop band The Flobots dropped in on the celebration after a six-week national tour.

“Who’s not excited to be invited to prom?” said Jonny 5, lead singer for the Flobots. “I feel like in any situation that anyone is in, you want to be looked at as more than a situation. You’re a person, dealing with the realities you’re dealing with … Honestly, I see this as folks having a party. They invited us to be a part of their party.”

The combined effect of a nationally recognized band, a full spread of food, a free ballroom and all of the other components made the party seem larger and grander than most high school proms.

“It’s part of the Teen and Young Adults Support Group that we run … The prom was born as kids were talking about missing their proms or going to their proms and still feeling separate from the other kids,” McHugh said. “The story of prom is that it started as this really tiny event with 10 kids and no DJ, with an iPod attached to a sound system. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

The appeal for the patients, McHugh said, is finding common ground with peers outside of the hospital.

“The biggest thing is kids meeting each other. The number one thing that young adults with cancer talk about is how isolated they feel,” McHugh said. “When they walk into Children’s they see little kids; if they get treated at the University of Colorado Hospital all they see are adults. Having them all here … they feel like it’s not that weird.

“They can be bald here, they can have one leg here and they can have a chord here. They can have all those things, and nobody thinks twice,” McHugh said.

Such personal outreach from the staff at Children’s Hospital has made a big difference not only for Melissa Jones, but also for her mother, Tammy Jones. When Melissa Jones was diagnosed last year, she was attending school at the University of Missouri, majoring in business administration.

“As a parent, when you get that shock, just overnight, (of) your daughter has cancer. To be able to bring her home from college … I feel really blessed we chose Children’s to go to; we’re 10 miles from the hospital,” Tammy Jones said. “They met every need for us.”

The value of the services at Children’s Hospital hadn’t been lost on Melissa Jones, either. She hinted that she’d like to turn her studies at the University of Missouri toward hospital administration. She might even look for a spot at the hospital where she received treatment.

The healing process hasn’t completely ended for Melissa Jones; she’s still waiting for the final test results from the doctors at Children’s Hospital. By July 22, she’ll know if the treatment was fully effective.

But she wasn’t focusing on test results or radiation treatment the night of the prom. Her focus was on dancing, having fun with friends and meeting members of one of her favorite bands. It was all about keeping a healthy perspective, she added.

“I’m appreciative for everything, even the littlest things,” she said before heading downstairs to dinner. “I lost my eyelashes, I lost a lot of muscle in my legs so I couldn’t stand up on my own … Every little thing in life, I’m so thankful for.”

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