Children's Hospital Colorado Celebrates Prom

A prom-goer gets dolled up before an evening of dinner and dancing
A prom-goer gets dolled up before an evening of dinner and dancing

"Is this the prom suite?" Jessica Luna, 17, asks. As she enters the room - fragrant with hairspray sizzling on curling irons - it alights, as though a favorite celebrity has arrived.

Others in the room compliment her dress and hair as Jessica bashfully makes a half-turn.

"You look sassy," says Tommi McHugh, rising from her makeup chair, wrapping her arms around Jessica. She steps back for a look. "Your hair is longer and curly."

Tommi, a child-life specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado (Children's Colorado), hasn't seen her since Jessica discontinued her weekly oncology appointments. Now in remission, Jessica visits Children's Colorado for check-ups just once a month.

Tonight Jessica and her peers from Children's Colorado Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders (CCBD) meet at Denver's Marriott City Center to dine and dance at a prom all their own: the CCBD Prom. Of the 70-plus teens and young adults in attendance, many missed their own high school proms due to treatments or illness.

Jessica makes her way to the hair table, where a stylist places a silver-feathered headband in her curls. Two years ago, as a high school sophomore, Jessica noticed unexplained bruises on her arms and legs. Her nose bled heavily and frequently. She soon discovered that she had a high-risk form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). After more than two years in chemotherapy, Jessica's ambition tonight is to "have fun and dance."

"Jessica is a gorgeous, hilarious girl who was very shy when she started," Tommi says. "But she has found herself; she is definitely that kid who has come into her own."

"It changed me a lot," Jessica says. "I feel more appreciative of things. Life can be short; it can be gone in any second. You need to value it as much as you can." She dreams to become a nurse at Children's Colorado someday to "help other kids like [her]."

United by cancer and blood disorders

In the prom suite, the young women and men tell similar stories of sickness and survival, some fully recovered, some still in treatment.

Lindsay McElhinney watches her younger counterparts in the room, perhaps remembering her first prom or reveling in their young excitement. Twelve years ago, just after her 13th birthday, Lindsay went to the doctor for a physical and walked away with an ALL diagnosis. She missed two and half grades of school while undergoing treatment at Children's Hospital Colorado.

"I was a lot more sick than most kids," Lindsay says, her face glowing from her pink top and silver earrings (that receive several "I love those!" from prom-goers). Her date tonight is Brandon McElhinney, also a Children's Colorado cancer survivor, whom she married on a beach in Mexico two years ago.

Brandon and Lindsay attended Children's inaugural prom for cancer patients five years ago, when it was just ten kids in a hotel suite with an iPod.

"I think the biggest thing [about prom] is you can relate to each other," Lindsay says.

"You know what people are going through. These are friends forever." As for tonight: "I'm just looking forward to having fun and meeting new people." Lindsay smiles. "We don't get to dress up very often."

It's good to be dancing again

Having a blast on the dance floor at the 2011 CCBD Prom at the Denver Marriott.

"All these beautiful girls," says Roseanna Madison, grandmother of 15-year-old Catarina Loveless. She watches Catarina smooth her white, black and pink dress as she waits for her makeup application.

"She was so sick before, to see where she has--" Catarina's mother, Kristen Loveless, trails off, unable to finish, as Catarina tears up next to her.

"Sometimes these things are so close to the surface," Roseanna explains, "you don't realize it 'til you start re-hashing it."

Catarina arrived to Denver in 2007 to receive treatment from Children's Colorado's hematology team after learning she had TCP (Thrombocytopenias), a blood disease. While fighting it, Catarina suffered from hip ossifications that temporarily melded her legs together. She had a stroke. She did not speak or walk for a year and a half.

"She had to blink to communicate with us," Kristen says. "Looking at her now…She's a miracle."

Catarina has been in remission for two and a half years. Tonight, she will hang out with friends, she will dance and she will make new friends. "This is about getting to meet new people," she says, "socializing with people who have been through tragedies."

Tommi McHugh: A hospital employee and prom planner

Everyone here has a story - even Tommi, who organized the first CCBD Prom five years ago. Makeup artists recruited by Ryan Griffith call Tommi to their table as she waves to an arriving teen. Tommi - and her colleagues - knows every prom-goer by name and story, knows their brothers' and sisters' and parents' names. She is their champion, giving them one of the most revered and anticipated events of their young lives. 

"It is wonderful to see these kids, who are going through such life-altering medical treatments, experience a normal rite of teenage passage," Tommi says.

Just after 6 p.m. on June 14, Jessica, Lindsay, Catarina, and their dates, friends and peers, descend the grand escalators of the Marriott. Photographers await them below in the silver, black and pink ballroom decorated for the theme "Flappers and Fellas." The young women and men sparkle and beam in their gowns and tuxedos. For those of us watching, it's incredible to see them - those whose lives took such extraordinary turns - going to prom, the quintessential experience for the American teenager. For them, though, this is the most normal event, and they couldn't be more ecstatic.

Prom made possible through generosity of local businesses

Children's Hospital Colorado CCBD Prom would not have been possible without the generosity of the following: The Denver Marriott City Center, Dan and Amy Hinote, Décor n' More, All Digital Photo and Video, Ryan Griffith's makeup posse, Antoine du Chez, Geoff Allen, Georgetown Cupcake, Starkey Productions, Al's Formal Wear, and Amanda's Angels.

Denver's Flobots and Nickelodean's Fred also appeared at the event.