Children's Hospital treats many patients, but Taki Charuhas was special. My associate, Annie Koch, has been looking into Taki's life and death. Her report:
When Taki Charuhas died in February after struggling against cancer for three and a half of his five years, more than 400 people, including 50 from the staff of Children's Hospital, attended his funeral. Clearly, he was unusual. So was the kind of care he received at Children's Hospital during his illness.
Taki (a Greek nickname for Peter) was a stocky, dark-haired boy who smiled easily. He was healthy during the first two years of his life. But in September 1978, after returning from a four-month trip to Greece with his family, he became sick one Monday with a high fever.
By that same evening, Taki had been admitted to Children's Hospital. His parents, Peter and Helen, who are part owners and managers of a restaurant in Reston, had been told that their son had acute lymphocytic leukemia.
Helen Charuhas sits in her living room in Rockville. On the television set are three large, framed photos of Taki and his older sister, Gina. Three more rest on the chest nearby. Behind the couch, on a shelf, stand another half a dozen.
To his mother, Taki was a handsome little boy who was intelligent, sensitive and above all, charming.
"He had a lot of charisma," she says, as she brings out a picture of her son in the Halloween costume he wore four months before he died. The photo shows Taki in a 19th-century Greek military uniform. "He wanted to be a Greek soldier," she explains.
Helen Charuhas is positive about two things. She couldn't have had a more wonderful son, and he couldn't have gotten better care than Children's Hospital gave him.
She liked Children's right away. The doctors and nurses "explained to us very clearly what would be involved," she says. Taki would be a patient in the hematology/oncology ward, a section of the hospital known as "Four Yellow," so called because of its location on the fourth floor and its yellow color scheme.
In Four Yellow, Taki would be started on chemotherapy. If everything went well, the leukemia would be in a state of remission in a matter of weeks.
Within a month, it was.
Taki continued to receive chemotherapy, just the same. But a year later, in the fall of 1979, the cancer returned.
In January, 1980, Taki developed complications from the cancer treatment and was readmitted to Four Yellow, a place that Taki's mother feels should be renamed "Four Love."
Helen Charuhas says the nurses, doctors and other staff members on Four Yellow did everything they could to make Taki's stay there "as pleasant as it could possibly be."
If Taki appreciated the people at the hospital, it's equally true that the people at the hospital appreciated Taki.
Dr. Rita Gluck, a hematologist, says Taki had a "tremendous sense of humor," and was "inquisitive," "affectionate" and "engaging."
"He liked to be with people and he liked people to be with him," she remembers. As the doctors would make their morning rounds in Four Yellow, Taki always wanted his door left open so he could chat with them as they passed by. He didn't like to watch television because he found people far more exciting. As a result, his room, number 4167, was always filled with people.
"I loved him," Dr. Gluck says. "He was a friend of mine."
Taki's primary nurse, Debbie Frieburg, says: "Everybody who knew him, loved him. When he smiled at you, you felt warm inside."
With Taki's condition worsening, the doctors at Children's decided his best chance of survival lay in a bone marrow transplant at the Children's Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle. In May, 1980, Taki and his sister Gina, who would donate her own bone marrow, were flown there.
While the Charuhas family was in Seattle and Taki was recovering from the transplant, his father took Gina out for a sail one day on Lake Washington. Taki heard about the sail, and from that moment on he dreamed of the cruise he would take when he got well.
But by the fall, the cruise began to look doubtful. Tests taken at Children's Hospital here showed that Taki's leukemia, which had been thought to be in a state of remission after the transplant, was now attacking the bone itself.
Helen Charuhas and the people who worked with Taki at the hospital knew how difficult the ordeal was for Taki. But he never complained.
By the following spring, Taki developed severe pneumonia and was placed on a respirator in the hospital's intensive care unit. It seemed certain he would die.
But Dr. Gluck wasn't ready to give up. She had seen him pull through so many times that she felt sure he could do it again.
His respiratory system improved to the point where he could be taken off the respirator, although he needed oxygen intermittently. When Taki left intensive care and returned to Four Yellow, the staff welcomed him back with a big party. There were decorations and some of his favorite foods.
But Taki grew worse, and by Christmas, 1981, it became clear he had only a short time to live.
On Monday night, Feb. 1, at his insistence, Taki went home to see his sister and his Snoopymobile. On Friday night, Feb. 5, Taki died.
Helen Charuhas pours a cup of coffee and brings out a pile of artwork that Taki did while he was in the hospital.
There are crayon drawings and colorful finger paintings and wax and glitter designs. Some of the designs look far too sophisticated for a five-year-old. His mother plans to have one of them framed.
Taki loved Greek music and Kenny Rogers' hit single, "Lucille," his mother says. He was a fan of gourmet food, too. His favorite meal was beef tournedos with bernaise sauce, and artichokes with mustard sauce. He also loved mushrooms, crabs and filet mignon.
And he had a dream.
One day, he wanted to be well enough to go to school.