Chela Duran was propped up in her hospital bed last week, her left hand tethered to an IV, when a woman wearing reindeer antlers popped through the door. "I brought you something," said Kelly Barmore, a child life therapist at All Children's Hospital. Her antlers wiggled while she walked. "These are pillowcases," she said, setting a stack of brightly patterned fabrics on the bed.
"See? We've got lots of different ones: cowgirl, Tinkerbell, Santa." She flipped through the pile. "And it's not just for while you're here. You can take it with you when you go home."
The girl looked up. "Can I go home now? 'Cause tomorrow is my birthday." She would be 7.
"Well, then you need this one," said the therapist, pulling out a case covered with colored balloons. "The magic birthday pillowcase."
• • •
Her real name is Griselda. But everyone calls her Chela. She lives in Zolfo Springs with her mom, dad and two big brothers. She's sick a lot, so she has to take all kinds of medicines for kidney problems, asthma and reflux.
In early December, Chela started running a fever. A few days later, her temperature spiked to 102. And stayed there.
Her doctor diagnosed a severe urinary tract infection and told Chela's mom to drive straight to All Children's Hospital, two hours away. Chela's mom, Geneva, 38, didn't have time to go home first.
So when they found out Chela had to stay, she had nothing. No Barbies. No ladybug pillow. No piece of home.
• • •
You're sort of stuck in the hospital.
All the grown-ups try to play with you, but they won't let you go outside and ride your bike or chase your brothers. You can't even get out of bed.
Everything that happens, happens on your pillow.
That afternoon, while doctors waited for test results and nurses brought medicine and Chela's mom kept hoping her fever would break, Chela lay on her new pillowcase, her dark hair spilling across the balloons.
She kept turning her head to sniff the fabric. "It doesn't smell like hospital," she told her mom. "It smells like snow."
She ate a cherry Popsicle on that pillowcase. She refused to eat a chicken fajita.
She drank blue Powerade from a pink princess cup.
She wiggled her tooth over the pillowcase. Painted a heart with a halo, with the pillowcase at her back. She beat a volunteer at Candy Land.
When the pastor from Chela's church came, he held her hand, and her mom's.
Around that pillowcase, they formed a circle and prayed.
• • •
The pillowcases come from all over Florida. Volunteers from Dade City to Venice, from Largo to Lakeland, sew fabric into standard rectangles, then trim them with contrasting prints. Each one needs a little more than a yard of fabric, takes a half-hour to sew and costs about $8.
It's all part of the ConKerr Cancer pillowcase project, a national effort.
"They are something anyone can make," said Carol Deloney, who oversees 150 volunteers in the Tampa Bay chapter. They donate about 800 pillowcases a month.
"We're just trying to make something to brighten the children's hospital rooms. We want to give them something to smile about."
"In the hospital, kids don't have much control over what happens to them," said Luci Weber, director of the Child Life Department at All Children's. "With these pillowcases, they get to pick out something that's special to them. They even have Gators and Bucs fabric for the older boys."
Some kids with cancer collect the cases, one for each chemo stay. Some stuff them with toys to carry home. An 11-year-old girl, in the hospital after a bone marrow transplant, collected her hair as it fell out and kept it in her pillowcase.
• • •
Chela couldn't sleep. The grown-ups told her to get some rest, but they kept coming in to take her temperature and check the machines and make sure she was drinking enough fluids.
Even after 11 p.m., when George Lopez was over and nothing good was on TV, she lay awake.
"Chela, please, baby, it's so late," her mom pleaded. "Just make a wish on your magic pillow, and when you wake up, you will be 7."
"I wish for a pony," Chela said. "Or maybe a unicorn."
"Too much trouble," her mom laughed.
"Then I want to go home."
Her mom turned back the crisp sheet, climbed over the bed rail and snuggled beside her. "I'm all sweaty," Chela said.
"That's wonderful," said her mom, brushing the sticky hair from her forehead. "That means your fever is breaking."
Just after midnight, Chela's mom finally laid her head beside her daughter's. The pillowcase was damp.
• • •
The next afternoon, doctors discharged Chela.
She had missed her town's Christmas parade, missed her first grade holiday party, missed birthday cupcakes with her classmates.
Her parents promised she could still celebrate.
But before they left for Chuck E. Cheese that night, Chela had a request. In her bedroom at home, she pulled out the handmade case printed with the colored balloons. She asked her mom to put it on her real pillow.
Maybe it still had some magic.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.