Radiation ‘superheros’ save the day

Child cancer patient gets superhero treatment to get through radiation therapy

This superhero story begins not with a bang or a spider bite, but with an email from Aaron C. Spalding, M.D., Ph.D., radiation oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute to his oncology radiation team, describing a new pediatric patient.

“Dr. Spalding told us that the patient loved superheroes, and we needed to do what we could to make him feel comfortable,” said Miko E. Gagai, medical dosimetrist and a former radiation therapist.

The superhero treatment began soon after. The patient’s radiation mask was fitted and christened a “Batman mask.” The mission: Complete 28 daily treatments.

Each radiation treatment requires the patient to sit perfectly still for 10 to 15 minutes. Statistics show that more than 70 percent of patients age 8 and younger require general anesthesia, which increases cost and recovery time and often affects the patient’s weight. Making treatment more challenging, the radiation center had added business hours to accommodate a record number of patients.

“This was a potential challenge for our team, as pediatric patients require more emotional attention, yet the therapists and nurses have a compressed timeline to interact,” Dr. Spalding said.

Despite this, the bond between the young boy and his radiation team grew with each treatment through an outreach of fun, support and compassion. Kelly Shaaber, radiation therapist, who has a son the patient’s age, took him around the office after treatments to “find bad guys.” Dana M. Bowen, R.N., digitally built superhero lairs on the boy’s phone.

After nearly six weeks of treatments — all performed without anesthesia — each team member donned a costume for the boy’s last day of treatment. Shaaber and Gagai dressed up as Batman. Rachael Peters, radiation therapist, was Superman. Bowen was Wonder Woman. Dr. Spalding was Captain America.

The entire superhero crew stayed late that day.

“Sometimes we have patients, like this little boy, who make a complete difference, not just in your work but in your life,” Gagai said. “Every day we have the opportunity to brighten someone’s day.”

Dr. Spalding echoed that sentiment. “Every day we meet new people, and every day we are privileged to meet their needs,” he said. “The kind of passion the team has is not something that can be counted on a spreadsheet or a résumé; it comes down to the size of their heart.”

The Superman cape remains in Peters’ locker. The Wonder Woman costume is in Bowen’s desk drawer. Dr. Spalding and Gagai keep their costumes in his office — ready to help others fight another day.