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Parents with Hospitalized Children Reconnect During Special Valentine's Dinner

Published February 14, 2018 | Updated February 26, 2018

Ruben and Tanya Young share a kiss

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Volunteers and staff at Duke Children's Hospital transformed a playroom into a romantic Valentine's Day dinner on Monday, Feb. 13, for parents whose children are hospitalized in the pediatric bone marrow transplant unit.
 
It was the first chance Ruben and Tanya Young have had to get dressed up together in months. The couple were high school sweethearts and have been married almost 32 years. Their 14-year-old daughter Tatiana, who received a bone marrow transplant for sickle cell disease, has been in the hospital more than 100 days, taking the family away from their home in Hampton, Va.
 
"I love seeing him in his suit," said Tanya, beaming at her husband Ruben in his tie and suspenders as they got ready for their Valentine's Day date on unit 5200 at Duke Children's Hospital. 
 
Her hand rested in the crook of his arm as they talked about what keeps their relationship strong: faith, sacrifice, and stealing time to connect, even if it's just having breakfast alone together in the hospital cafeteria before they go back upstairs tackle the day's medical tests and instructions for Tatiana. (More info on pediatric bone marrow transplant at Duke).
 
When they first glimpsed each other in high school, Tanya noticed Ruben's dimples, she said. Ruben boasted to his friends that Tanya would be his girlfriend by the end of the week. They got married after Ruben joined the U.S. Navy and raised two biological children. For 18 years, Ruben served as pastor of Holy Communion Church of God in Christ in Hampton.
 
"Being a preacher, he wanted to save the world," Tanya said. After their children had grown up, they decided to become foster parents.They envisioned being guardians for an older child, but soon social services called, telling them there was a newborn baby at the hospital who needed their care.
 
"We didn't go into it for adoption, but she stole our hearts," Tanya said. 
 
Tatiana was tiny, under 5 pounds, Tanya said. Clothes made for preemies were too small, so Tanya and her sister scoured toy stores, buying stuffed animals that came with clothes they could use for the little girl.
 
Tatiana has suffered two strokes and underwent a bone marrow transplant that doctors hope will cure her sickle cell disease. She's a bright student, strong in science and math, and hopes to become a nurse.
 
Like Tatiana, many children in the unit are recovering from bone marrow transplants and other procedures to treat conditions including cancer, and have been hospitalized for months.
 
Patients must have a parent or relative with them around the clock. Parents might get a short reprieve to do simple things like get groceries or do laundry, but otherwise one parent is literally living in the hospital room, sleeping, eating, and for some of them, working and arranging care for other children, all by the child's bedside.
 
Understandably, their children are their priority, but that leaves little time for parents and partners to focus on each other.
 
For more than 10 years, the Duke Children's Hospital Pediatric Bone Marrow Transplant Family Support Program and volunteers have organized the Valentine's dinner to give parents a short break from their roles as caregivers. For one evening, they are taken down the hall to a "romantic restaurant," while still being just footsteps away from their children, who are also entertained for the hour by volunteers.
 
Donors arranged for a catered dinner, from appetizers to dessert. Duke University undergraduate Peter Luo accompanied dinner on his violin. Volunteers set the ambiance with fresh flowers, battery-operated candles and an image of a roaring fire that flickered on the playroom TV screen as dinner was served.
 
"This is a brief retreat from everything that's going on around you," Ruben said of the dinner. "You know you have to go back to it, but these moments add a memory and when things are bad you can look back on the memories and say, 'You know what? We had a good time right here,' and that helps you along the way."
 

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