When a family friend handed Caitlyn Mortus a check following the completion of her cancer treatment, he had only one request: pay it forward. Since that day, hundreds of young cancer patients from across the country and around the world have benefited from Mortus doing as he asked.
But let’s rewind to where this story began, back in 2009, when Mortus was a seventh-grader and a star athlete in Katy, Texas, a suburb of Houston. After she was struck near the mouth by a soccer ball, Mortus complained of reoccurring pain and noticed unusual swelling in the weeks that followed.
The cause of her symptoms turned out to be Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, which would require five rounds of intense chemotherapy.
“The diagnosis came as a complete shock because I never knew much about cancer,” Mortus, now 17, says. “My treatment required me to stay in the hospital for a week at a time, and I missed my friends and felt isolated.”
During one of her hospital stays, Mortus was given a netbook — a small laptop computer — that allowed her to monitor social media sites such as Facebook and hold video-chats with friends. Suddenly, the outside world was at her fingertips, and it was comforting.
She had that same feeling five months after her diagnosis when she held the check in her hands and recalled the call to pay it forward. By that time, Mortus was cancer-free, according to her oncologist, Anna Franklin, M.D., an assistant professor in Pediatrics-Patient Care.
“My parents and I sat down and started to think about what helped me the most during my treatment,” she says. “It was the netbook. So we decided other sick kids should have them, too.”
And that’s how Keep Kids Connected began in 2010. The nonprofit organization’s goal is helping children in hospitals benefit from what Mortus calls “social healing.” With the help of donations and fundraisers, the group has purchased 631 computers and tablets, available to patients ages 3-18 who apply online.
One of the recipients is 17-year-old Jennifer Gutierrez. She credits the program with making hospital visits easier. She overcame her own battle with leukemia, but regularly returns to MD Anderson for follow-up exams.
Mortus and Gutierrez first met at Camp Star Trails, an annual overnight summer camp for MD Anderson patients and their siblings. A few years later, Gutierrez heard about the program and filed her request for a computer.
“It made a big difference during treatments because I don’t have a lot of family nearby,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to keep in touch while I’m sitting in the exam room waiting for my appointments.”
For Mortus, her family and their many supporters, Keep Kids Connected is about recognizing how cancer affects lives and using that insight to make a difference.
“It’s something little that we can do, but to see the excitement on someone’s face is truly inspiring,” Mortus says.