Teacher’s virtual bedtime stories entertain childhood cancer patients
At night before they drift off to sleep, pediatric patients at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital can snuggle up in bed with a laptop or tablet and listen to the soothing sounds of Laura Rodriguez reading them a bedtime story.
Rodriguez, who leads the early childhood education program at the hospital’s accredited K-12 school, uses Zoom to read favorites such as “Bedtime for Peppa Pig,” “Llama, Lama Red Pajama,” and “Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site.”
“Children who are seriously ill need all the love and attention we can give,” says Rodriguez, who teaches 3- to 6-year-olds. “Going through cancer treatment is isolating enough, but now COVID-19 is forcing young patients to give up even more of their regular visitors and activities.”
Fueling children’s imaginations during the COVID-19 pandemic
Before the pandemic, a steady stream of the littlest learners visited the hospital’s schoolroom, where Rodriguez was always ready with a story. Some were hospitalized; others were simply dropping by after a doctor’s appointment. Visiting the schoolroom for story time was a treat.
“Their faces lit up when I acted out book characters and showed them pictures,” Rodriguez recalls. “They were 100% engaged.”
Then the pandemic arrived, and for the safety of patients, the schoolroom began permitting only one school-aged child at a time. The once lively schoolroom became quiet, and preschool books sat on shelves like old forgotten friends.
Rodriguez worried that her young patients’ love of reading might dwindle.
Then she had an idea: “I could still read to them,” she says, “not in person, but virtually.”
She messaged parents and invited them to sign their children up for 45 minutes of bedtime stories, three nights a week.
The response was overwhelming. Since the program began in March, Rodriguez has hosted more than 75 bedtime story sessions. Some kids return again and again. Some are first-timers. Rodriguez welcomes them all.
A magical escape from cancer treatment
Instead of reading to a group of children all at once, Rodriguez reads to one child at a time.
“I want each child to view this as a special time meant just for them,” she says.
For 45 minutes, she reads three books, in English or Spanish. Some are special requests. Others she chooses based on the child’s personality.
As story time begins, Rodriguez sinks into a pink bean bag chair in her study. A children’s bookshelf belonging to her 7-year-old daughter, Ava, is beside her. A floor lamp illuminates walls decorated with children’s art. Lullabies play softly as children log onto Zoom, each waiting for their session to begin.
When Rodriguez appears on screen, they’re delighted to see her. The feeling is mutual.
“I miss them,” Rodriguez says. “This is my way of showing how much I care, and that I haven’t forgotten them.”
Some books use a mobile phone app that projects story images onto the ceiling or wall, and plays music and sound effects.
“High-tech, low-tech, it doesn’t matter,” Rodriguez says. “The children love them all.”
Parents, too, are grateful.
Hannah Alshalabi’s 5-year-old son, Adam, is among Rodriguez’s biggest fans. The preschooler was diagnosed two years ago with neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that forms in nerve cells. Storytime offers him a magical escape from chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments.
“He’s so happy during that 45 minutes,” Hannah says, “when cancer takes a backseat.”
After every session, Rodriguez gifts each child with one of the books she read. She wraps it and includes a personal note encouraging them to “keep reading.” Some books are delivered in the hospital. Others are mailed to the child’s home.
Normalizing cancer and COVID-19
When children seem sad or scared, Rodriguez uses books to broach topics that may be troubling them.
“COVID-19 and cancer are frightening for small children who don’t always understand what’s happening in the world,” she says. “Reading is one of those activities that can help normalize an experience that is anything but normal.”
She encourages parents to include books in their children’s bedtime routines. But she knows it’s not always easy.
“Parenting during a pandemic is tough,” she says. “I’m here to offer support, the best way I know how.”