A volunteer who reads to young patients shows how a good book can be good medicine.
It has been a rotten day.
Three-year-old Cole lies in his hospital bed on the Eighth floor, listless and lethargic, his little body unmoving.
One arm is strapped to an IV, the other is flung over his head. His mop of honey-colored hair forms a halo of crazy patterns around his face—the 3-year-old version of “bed head.”
His cheerful, fire engine-red Paw Patrol pajamas belie his slate gray state of mind.
It’s just that … it isn’t fair. Cole has been here all week, and he’s tired of this dumb hospital bed. All he wants is to go home and play with his toy dinosaurs.
Then, a soft knock at the door …
Uh oh. Is somebody here to give him a needle stick? Make him swallow medicine? Try to get him to eat? Not happening. He’s not playing.
But in walks something of a surprise. … A diminutive woman with a thespian’s energy, toting a cart full of books. All kinds of books! Classics, princess books, dinosaur books, books that make you learn, and ones that make you laugh.
“Hello, Cole! How would you like it if I read you a story?”
“Hmmm. … Let’s see.” The woman studies him over her spectacles. “I believe I might have just the book for you.”
Sharon Wurster is used to tough customers. Retired after 27 years as a speech pathologist in the Pinellas County School system, Wurster now volunteers with the hospital’s “Little Ones for Literacy” program. It’s geared to patients ages 3 months to 8 years old. The idea is to brighten the patients’ experience while they’re here, and to connect them with the joy of reading.
Sharon reaches into her box of books and pulls out Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” by Judith Viorst.
“I went to sleep with gum in my mouth, and now there’s gum in my hair,” Wurster reads.
Here was a story about a kid on his worst day. Alexander fights with his friends, endures car sickness, learns he has a cavity at the dentist, and even has to eat lima beans for dinner. Please.
Sharon knows what it’s like to have bad days, to be sick. As a teenager, she was diagnosed with Turner Syndrome, a chromosomal condition that can cause a range of health problems throughout life. That’s why Wurster is only 4 feet 8, no taller than your average fourth grader.
For all of these reasons, she identifies with the little ones who are battling with medical issues. She loves to make them smile.
“I’m a ham. I admit it,” she confesses. “I like doing the voices of the different characters. I love to see these kids happy. When a kid laughs at something or gets excited, I just love it.”
With each patient, Wurster does a quick assessment. How old are they? What can she learn from their environment? What’s their state of mind?
If she sees that a patient has princess toys in her room, she’ll reach for Beauty and the Beast, or Frozen.
For a young patient who is feeling discouraged, she may go with The Little Engine That Could.
And if a child is ripe to giggle, she’ll read Is Your Mama a Llama? to get the belly laughs.
Wurster even reads to the littlest patients, only a few months old. Research shows very early exposure to language, particularly hearing the written word, has a profound influence on children’s learning as they grow up. The American Academy of Pediatrics is now encouraging reading to children, starting in infancy.
For Wurster, it’s not always easy to be here. The toughest part of her day is when she sees young patients who seem truly alone. They don’t appear to have family around, and their rooms are absent any balloons, or little touches from home.
“I feel so sorry for these little ones, there’s nobody visiting, they’re often in foster care. If I determine a child doesn’t have a loving parent nearby, I’ll spend more time with that child,” she says.
As for Cole, he does have a loving parent who, in this moment, is grateful to have a kind volunteer who is focused on bringing her son a little bit of happiness.
“I’m exhausted, I don’t get a break,” says Shannon, Cole’s mom. “So when somebody comes in to read to him, it distracts him and takes his mind off things, and it gives me a chance to breathe for a minute and decompress.”
As Wurster continues the story of Alexander, Cole begins to come around. He reaches over to point to a picture or two that illustrate Alexander’s plight. He’s not the only one having a bad day! But he’s still not going to smile like he’s enjoying it. Nope.
Wurster remembers how, years ago, she used the story of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, to teach her students about antonyms. She’d have them list words like wonderful, exciting, fantastic, very good day, and then write a story about a great day they might imagine having.
For her students back then, it was to learn about story structure. But now, it serves a different purpose—to help little ones struggling with illness move to a happier place in their minds.
“So Cole, what would a wonderful, exciting, fantastic, very good day look like for you?” Wurster asks.
Slowly, Cole breaks into a wide grin. “Disney,” he says.
Together, Cole and his new friend begin to create his very best day in his mind.
This very bad day is improving.
Donations of books or money for the “Little Ones For Literacy” program can be made through the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Foundation. Board books are preferred for this age group.