We walk in and look down in surprise as our feet stick to the floor. My cousin laughs and explains that her little patient spilled Sprite earlier and they’re still waiting for somebody to clean it up. We look at the Tough Little Bird sitting in the bed surrounded by her toys, and she gives us a big smile. The kids join her and they start a game. I sit by my cousin and she updates me on the progress.

Tough Little Bird is 4-years old. Last Spring, because of stomach pains, steadily high fever, all around misery, her parents brought her to the Children’s Hospital where she was diagnosed with a Wilms tumor. One of her kidneys was almost completely covered with the tumor and had to be removed. After one surgery, months of chemotherapy, and a great amount of emotional stress, Tough Little Bird and her parents go home with a reassuring next-to-nothing chance that the cancer would come back. Showing off the scar that stretched across her abdomen, Tough Little Bird went home to stay.

This past April, the pain returned. Recognizing the signs, her parents brought her back to the hospital. They asked for an ultra sound; the doctors did other tests and sent them home. Within a couple of days, Tough Little Bird gets hurt and her parents, concerned about internal bleeding, bring her back. After much argument, my cousin finally succeeds in getting that ultra sound. They discover two more tumors: one where Tough Little Bird’s previous tumor had been and another on her lung. Her parents are angry with the doctors’ behavior and devastated that this was happening yet again after such reassurance that it wouldn’t. Tough Little Bird’s father, in a rare show of anger, blatantly tells the doctors that maybe they’ll do things right this time since they still have the $10,000 bill from the first chemo treatment that ended just a few months earlier when they were told everything was fine.

Two more surgeries and eight more months of chemo and radiation are scheduled. Tough Little Bird gets dots tattooed on her belly where the radiation will be administered, and the second year of cancer treatment begins. One side effect from radiation is sterility. My cousin incredulously asks one of the many doctors how she is supposed to tell her 4-year old daughter that news. The doctor has no answer. Tough Little Bird doesn’t have much of a response, either. My cousin, considering this, realized that for her daughter, this is life as she knows it. She takes it without shock or question. Whereas some people cry and rant and scream, “Why me?” Tough Little Bird simply looks at you steadily, hooks herself up to her various IV’s, and makes herself comfortable on her bed amid her art supplies, juice boxes, and snacks. Her parents learn how to administer shots and monitor vital signs at home, and that sometimes, in order to get answers, being a good hospital parent means badgering the staff until they listen to you.

So now we sit in a $900-a-day room, watching various care givers come in and out and exclaim about the sticky floor. Nobody does anything about it—until the doctor comes in. Sporting a rhinestone-studded ID badge and outrageous cartoon pants, he proudly shows his patient his pink fingernails painted by another little patient. He’s the fun doctor, the one who teases his little bald patients that he’ll come and bite their heads (tickling them with his bushy beard) while they sleep, and Tough Little Bird, ready to match his wit, smiles as he enters. His feet stick to the floor; he looks up at Tough Little Bird’s mischievous smile, then asks just what has she been doing in here?! My cousin tells him. The doctor declares, “I have a mop right here,” and steps just outside the door. My cousin and I look at each other. I gasp, “He has a mop!” and we watch dumbfounded as he mops up the spilled soda, bantering back and forth with Tough Little Bird as he does so. He jokes about this is why he makes the big bucks, waves his pink fingernails at her, and continues his rounds.

My cousin turns to me. “The hospital room alone costs $900 a day. That doesn’t include the medication and treatment. You’d think for that price, we’d get the Gold Treatment.” My jaw drops. $900?! And it takes half an hour to clean a floor? $900 a day, 5-6 days a month, for 8 months of treatment. Add to that the multiple bags of chemo and other solutions Tough Little Bird gets each day, the out-patient treatments, blood transfusions, radiation, medications and supplies to be administered at home. Then the doctors’ (that’s plural doctors) fees. It’s overwhelming. My cousin and her husband apparently earn too much (?!) to qualify for financial help, but they persevere without fear or doubt. What else would they do? This is their child; it’s not optional. It’s not like she just accidentally broke her leg and gets a one-time fix. This disease is not her fault, nor is the lengthy treatment it requires. They’ll pay for it no matter what. So when case workers come to discuss expenses, my cousin simply responds, “Just add it to the tab.”

But perseverance and determination fill the air. There’s no time for pity or pessimism. Since July, Tough Little Bird has weighed around 26 pounds. Standing tall with her bald head, thin limbs, big smile, and firm opinion, she has an attitude more like a mature 30-year old adult than a 4-year old child. Her way of working with what life gives her with no complaints or excuses is inspiring, as is her family’s endurance. My own faith in human nature has increased by witnessing how compassionate and generous others are to people they don’t even know. Life is amazing, miraculous, and yours. Inspiring lessons from one Tough Little Bird.

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