The playroom on Four Orange has a pool table and a picture window that offers a breathtaking view of Washington. That playroom also offers an intimate view of youth, sickness, life and death. But James M. Parker will tell you that Four Orange is not an unhappy place.
Four Orange is the 21-bed adolescent wing of Children's Hospital. The teen-agers who stay there for a few days or a few months are treated for many problems, from asthma to cancer. Parker, a hospital social worker, has been the adolescent advocate for that section since November 1977.
His job, he said, is to "make sure the anxiety that's produced by coming into the hospital is somewhat alleviated . . . to make (the experience) a little less threatening." Parker does this by offering games, outings away from the hospital, art projects and rap sessions to the children. Mostly Parker is there to listen. p
Even while the 33-year-old counselor sat in the sun-drenched playroom talking to a reporter, he had one eye on his kids. He interrupted his conversation to answer the inquiries of a retarded boy recovering from minor mouth surgery, and to attend a surprise birthday for a patient's mother.
The celebration was arranged by three teen-age girls who have been in the ward for several months. All have anorexia nervosa, severe malnutrition caused by a patient's obsession with dieting.
Parker said that while he may negotiate between the parties involved if a child is having a problem with a doctor or nurse, he also will encourage parents and children to loosen their bonds so that a teen-ager can exercise his or her independence.
Parker believes the most important part of his work is the rap sessions on Tuesday evenings. "I use this room to get them to interact with each other," he said. At the same time, he likes the youngsters to discuss practical matters like how to look for a job.
Parker encourages children who have been in the hospital a long time to discuss how they will readjust to a social life among their peers.
"Sometimes the kids don't want interaction," he said. For those children, Parker will often just sit in their room for half an hour or so and say nothing. He said he does it "just so they know I'm here." Eventually, they loosen up and talk.
"A noncompliant kid is the hardest to work with," Parker said. Such patients are often hostile, act out, and won't take their medicine. "Teen-agers, especially guys, are very macho," Parker said, and try to mask their anxiety about being in a hospital.
Parker spends a great deal of time getting the youngsters to work on their self-esteem, to work out their depression and fear about being ill. He says he believes in approaching things realistically. If a child has cancer, they talk about all possible outcomes of the disease.
Parker's face clouds as he remembers a 13-year-old girl who came into the hospital a few years ago with a mysterious fever. Many tests were done, but doctors never determined what was wrong with her.
She stayed in the hospital for almost nine months. One day, Parker recalls, she awoke from a bad dream. "We (Parker and nurses) went in to calm her down. She reached for my hand. She looked up at me -- that was it. I pushed the code button -- everyone came running. I stood outside the door. It was such a helpless feeling.
"The . . . death of a child who hadn't had a chance to live -- hat bothers me tremendously," said Parker. Accepting death, he said, is the most difficult thing about his job.
"My greatest joy working here is seeing them feeling better, walking out the door . . .," he said. Many of Parker's youngsters see him as a big brother, or at least someone to shoot pool with. Some tease him about getting paid to play.
Parker admits he likes working with teen-agers better than with any other group: "It's a beautiful age." He finds them challenging, he says, because a teen-ager is a cross between being a child and being an adult and still learning. "I love it. You can really shape a kid."
Parker took a roundabout route to Children's. Ten years ago he gave up his studies in business administration at Tennessee State University and moved to the District. He became a manager at Tyler House, an apartment building on North Capitol Street. There he began working with problem teen-agers in the neighborhood and formed an activities club for them.
For Tyler House, Parker went to the University of the District of Columbia and studied psychology. He got a job as a counselor at the Psychiatric Institute in Northwest where he worked with patients of all ages.
Earlier, while Parker was at UDC, he worked as a security guard at Children's Hospital. He kept in touch with friends there, who encouraged him to apply for the social worker position in the newly created adolescent wing.
Parker, who lives in Suyitland with his wife and two daughters, says he that sometimes he needs a break from childen. For that reason, he is very active in the Capitol Z Sports Car Club Inc., a social and service organization for Datsun Z owners, for which he heads the membership committee.
Parker doesn't think he will saty at the hospital indefinitely, but his commitment to teen-agers isn't likely to change, he said.
"I really want to go back out in the community. There's more of them out there who need what I have to give," he said. "If I could, I'd love to get a building, a club for them to go to. . . . But in the back room of this club, I'd have a class about life."
Parker's eyes light up.
"Let me tell you about my dream . . .," he said, revealing that he'd like to run for a seat on the Prince George's County School Board.
"My platform would be the family," he declared. He said he hoped he could do something about the breakdown in family systems, especially black families. "Everybody's gone into this individuality thing," he lamented.
Parker said he would like to make all his political speeches from a soapbox at school playgrounds so that constitutents would know that children were important to rally around.
Parker believes that some of the problem adolescents face could be helped if more people took the time and interest to work with them. "If kids can form images from fictitious characters like Shaft and Superfly, why not real role models?