The Priyanka Foundation began as a promise from a mother to her daughter: The two were grateful recipients of Child Life Services offered at Minnesota hospitals in the U.S. during their difficult 4-year journey with childhood leukemia.
In 1999, beautiful 4-year old daughter Priyanka developed a mild fever, leg pain, and presented with mouth sores, which resulted in a diagnosis of Acute Lymphoblast Leukemia (A.L.L), a common cancer found in young children. The talented physicians and staff at Minneapolis Children’s Hospitals & Clinics, being confident it was a textbook case of A.L.L., proceeded with a standard course of treatment, anticipating long-term remission.
The first course lasted 26 months, with hospital stays varying from a single night to several weeks. During this time, Minneapolis Children’s Hospital became a second home for Priyanka and her mother, Leela Rao; which they endearingly referred to as a ‘condo in the city.’
Initially, Priyanka was scared of the medical procedures, equipment and isolation. However, with the support of Child Life Service staff, her hospital routine became predictable and less frightening, which allowed herself, her friends and her family to experience reduced stress and a positive sense of wellness.
After completing her initial course of treatment, Priyanka’s physicians provided clearance for her to travel to India, the country where her mother was born and raised. Young Priyanka was excited to travel and hauled two suitcases full of toys and games, which she had received as a patient in Minnesota.
Once they arrived to her grandmother’s home in Mumbai, Priyanka’s mom set out to visit one of the largest cancer-treatment hospitals in India, with the intention of joyfully sharing the two suitcases of American toys. However, Leela was shocked as she tried to maneuver through the narrow hallways, filled with despondent faces, sickness and a sense of morbidity. Entering the pediatric oncology ward, she saw even more hopelessness; the children were terrified and their families were racked with despair. The children did not trust strangers, and clung to their parents; there were no toys or games, no current reading materials, no understanding of what might happen next. The stress was extreme. One parent expressed the mood of the whole group, saying ‘the sunset was something to look forward to at the end of each day.’
Immediately, Leela was overwhelmed with gratitude for the Child Life Services provided back in Minnesota, and realized what a profound impact they had on the sense of health and wellness experienced by the patient and family.
The cancer hospital in India, like most others, provides good medical treatment, though the workload is immense and demanding. There are no resources to offer emotional support to the patients and their families. The hospital in Mumbai lacked Child Life Services; a place for the children to be happy, to play games, have freedom to move, and to watch movies. The parents did not have access to daily newspapers or a medical library.
With this image in mind, Priyanka and her mother promised each other they would return to India some day, with the resolve and resources, to start a Child Life and Development Program for hospitalized children.
Unfortunately, Priyanka never had the chance to see that promise fulfilled: her body succumbed during a bone marrow transplant, back in Minnesota, in August 2003. She had relapsed with a secondary drug induced Leukemia in January 2003.
The Priyanka Foundation aims to give a gift to hospitalized children worldwide, from a child in Minnesota, who understood the significance of the softer side of healing in the toughest times.