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Gratitude That Lasts a Lifetime

By John Kelly
Thursday, December 28, 2006

T he hope at Children's Hospital is that every young patient will become an old ex-patient. Children's is never far from the thoughts of those whose lives were saved there. My assistant, Julia Feldmeier, spoke with two grateful alumnae.

Frederick, 1986: Erica Perry is watching "The Sound of Music" on TV. The phone rings. Bad news: The lethargy she's been feeling lately is caused by kidney failure.

Erica's not sure what her kidney does exactly, but when her parents load her into the car and shuttle her some 50 miles to Children's Hospital in Washington, she knows the situation is serious.

Indianapolis, 2006: Erica -- now Erica Kuchinski, 37 -- puts her son, Ian, down for a nap and answers a reporter's phone call. Life is good. Very good. It's been nearly 20 years since Dr. Phillip Guzzetta, a surgeon at Children's, successfully placed her mother's kidney inside her body.

Twenty years, and not a drop of gratitude lost in time. How to express how grateful she is for this second life?

"Words aren't really enough," she says. So she traveled to Children's Hospital in October to give Dr. Guzzetta the gold medal she won at the Transplant Games this year for the 200-meter dash -- a token of appreciation, a sign of her health and endurance.

* * *

Annapolis, 1991: Katie Strumpf wakes up because her parents are telling her to get dressed. She thinks it's morning, time to leave for her cousin's bat mitzvah. She doesn't know this will be the longest night of her life.

Her parents tell it to her straight: They're going to Children's Hospital; she has leukemia.

Katie, 10, isn't certain what leukemia is, but she doesn't like the sound of it coming from her mother. She doesn't like the helplessness in her mom's eyes -- doesn't like understanding that her parents can't fix this.

Bethesda, 2006: Katie, now 26, is in her condo. Cellphone service is spotty, but everything else in her life seems to be intact.

She's now a published author: Her book, "I Never Signed Up for This: An Upfront Guide to Dealing With Cancer at a Young Age," came out last month. It's a been-there-done-that survival guide, something to explain cancer and hair loss and, yes, the sinking realization that Mom and Dad can't fix everything.

Luckily, the doctors at Children's could fix Katie, and she's now cancer-free. Maybe she didn't appreciate them so much at the time -- what 10-year-old wants to be in a hospital, after all? -- but "looking back now, I owe them my life," she says.

She's taken a pay-it-forward approach by helping kids with cancer, believing, she says, that "I got to stay on this Earth just to do that."

Helping Children's

I'm enormously grateful for the contributions we've received so far in our drive to raise $500,000 for Children's Hospital. This campaign is like few others. We don't get hefty corporate checks that end in lots of zeroes. We get lots of little checks that end in one zero, maybe two.

They're handwritten and drawn from personal accounts, and they include notes that say things such as "Get well, little ones" and "Please extend our heartfelt thanks for all the good Children's does."

Add them all together and the result is both an outpouring of support for this most important of institutions and, I'm glad to say, real money. That money is used to pay the hospital bills of kids who don't have health insurance, ensuring that no child is ever turned away.

To donate, make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital.

To contribute by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100.

We're also able to convert foreign currency -- including coins -- into U.S. funds. Package it carefully and send it to me: John Kelly, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

Thank you.

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