On a cold day in January 2020, five-year-old Zemirah arrived in New York City from her home in St. Vincent Island in the Caribbean.
Zemi had been very recently diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer that occurs in the sympathetic nervous system, a part of the nervous system that helps control the body’s response to stress. The sympathetic nervous system includes organs and structures such as the intestines, smooth muscle, heart, and glands.
A close family friend urged her parents to bring Zemi to New York for treatment at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone. Sadly, her parents couldn’t stay with her, and friends of the family stepped in to be with Zemi.
The team at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital admitted Zemi to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) and immediately began aggressive treatment of her cancer. She had brain surgery to remove her tumor and then started multiple rounds of high-dose chemotherapy.
Her medical team, led by Elizabeth Raetz, MD, division director of hematology-oncology, could also see how scared Zemi was without her family, so they turned to the Child Life team, part of Sala Institute for Child and Family Centered Care, to support the young patient.
Beth Kramsky, a certified child life therapist, answered the call and went to her bedside. “When Zemi was first hospitalized, she was withdrawn and anxious when meeting new staff and being in a new environment,” says Beth. “This is completely normal and one of the main reasons child life services are available—to counteract these feelings and help kids like Zemi feel more comfortable and supported.”
Slowly Zemi engaged with the Sala team. She began to participate in activities most five-year-olds enjoy—like drawing, story time, and dancing to music. And her family away from home started to see the difference.
“Zemi loves art so much! Art therapy definitely makes her feel more normal in the hospital, and engaging in any kind of art with her fingers—sand art, painting—are some of her favorite activities,” says Cherish Joseph, her cousin. Together the newly formed family did crafts and played games. “We also love to play bingo and hide and seek, and we have the best dance parties! We have a lot of fun together.”
Zemi has had a long journey since she first came to Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital. And she’s not done yet. She has undergone two stem cell transplants and is currently receiving immunotherapy. Despite these aggressive treatments, she still enjoys many of the activities and supportive care made possible by Sala. “Zemi is a tough little girl, but she always has a smile on her face,” says Dr. Raetz.