Saving Becca

One year in a family’s battle against cancer

It’s early evening as they make the turn onto beautiful Gloucester Drive. The neighborhood is beginning to percolate for Halloween night. Glowing jack-o’-lanterns dot the doorsteps, throwing orange light on tiny goblins and ballerinas ferried from house to house by their parents.

Becca and Bobby change into their costumes, and Sue fixes dinner as the doorbell starts ringing with trick-or-treaters. Life, unbelievably, is going on.

On Monday, Sue calls CHOP’s oncology department and is referred to Dr. Bruce Himelstein, a prominent young pediatric oncologist who will handle Becca’s care. Come to CHOP the next morning, Sue is told, and plan to stay all day.

NAMED FOR ITS BENEFACTORS, MARSHA and Jeffrey Perelman, who helped to fund its construction in 1995, the oncology unit at CHOP is surreal to those who’ve never had a critically ill child.

An L-shaped space with interior windows that overlook the hospital’s central atrium, it’s sunny and colorful, with a big, comfortable playroom for kids and a warren of “family” rooms where parents and sibling can hang out, away from the intrusions of roommates and medical personnel.

But any sense of normalcy isn’t noticed on a first-time visit. Instead, one sees only the children with heads naked from chemotherapy, or kids who navigate the hallways, legless in wheelchairs or trying out new limbs with shaky determination, or small figures who lie listless in their darkened rooms, attended by wild-eyed, grieving parents. Other mothers and fathers, veterans in the battle, joke with their offspring and murmur with the nurses, confidently using medical jargon they once couldn’t pronounce.

A 13-month-old, bald from chemo, his blue eyes hooked by fleshy pads where eyebrows used to rest, toddles down the hallway, pushing his IV pole like a baby walker. “Good, sweetie, take a step! You can do it!” says his mother, reaching for him. Grinning in her arms, he looks like a tiny old man.

In the play area, a tutor coaches a sallow-skinned teen through a tough math problem; other kids play Nintendo or frown together at the computer, trying out new software. A mother colors quietly with her daughter in a corner. The room smells like lasagna, somebody’s leftovers from home reheating in the microwave.

It’s a poignant world of sudden hope and slow terror, precise calibrations and unexplained miracles, relentless compassion and dispassionate odds. For the next year, it will be the Piccininis’ home away from home.

Becca and Sue are touring the unit with a social worker as they wait for Dr. Himelstein, who is reviewing Becca’s test results from Johns Hopkins. Downstairs, Bob is meeting with a financial counselor to learn what costs their insurance carrier, U.S. Healthcare, will pick up for Becca’s treatment.