Creating Special Bonds

Posted on May 03, 2019

Bala and 4-year-old son Advaith with Renie 

The barbecue smell wafts through 7 South, the cancer unit at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. It’s family dinner night and parents, relatives and friends wander in to make a plate. These dinners bring families together to bond and support one another and have become a monthly tradition.

“We’ve become a family on this journey,” says Bala, whose 4-year-old son, Advaith, has spent seven months in and out of the hospital with bone cancer and recently had his left foot amputated.

Family dinner night creates a sense of support and interaction, a neighborhood of sorts for families who otherwise might just pass each other in a hallway.

“We wanted to give families a chance to step away from their rooms and talk to people who can truly relate to what they are going through,” says Donna Madden, patient experience navigator at the hospital. “We want families to feel like they are having a night out but still be just steps away from their rooms.”

Food is catered and a small room is transformed. A meeting table becomes a dinner table with a tablecloth, and a dry erase board is a welcome sign. The room is quiet with music softly playing in the background. Tonight, it’s barbecue, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and corn bread.

Some families come in, make a plate and leave. Others sit and stay a while. At the far end of the table, two Spanish speaking moms are meeting each other for the first time. At the other end, two families are sharing stories.

Renie, stepmother of 17-year-old George who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in June, and Bala have gotten to know one another.

“Advaith is always smiling,” Renie said. “Just like Georgey, you can’t get these kids down. Just the other day, Advaith said, ‘Your nose is so big. Can I touch it?’” Renie pressed her finger into her nose to show Advaith’s curiosity and enthusiasm. Everyone around the table laughed.

“Then, Advaith looked at me,” Donna says, “and he said, ‘Your nose is big, too. Can I touch it?’” Again, laughter around the table.

Renie stands, smiling, and heads back to George. Soon after, Bala waves goodbye. As they depart, a new conversation starts at the other end of the table.

Athena and Phil Gray and their son Chris fund the family dinners in honor of their son/brother Tyler. Visit to contribute.


From Kidney Failure to Academic Success

Britney's kidney may be failing her, but she was determined to succeed in academics.

Read More

Heart Surgery and Hallway Soccer

A heartwarming “first practice” for 15-year-old Wilfre.

Read More

View all MOMENTS