Flashes of Hope creates Portraits of Courage

April 04, 2008  |  Posted by American Family Children's Hospital

MADISON - One week, Juliette Walker was swimming in the state tournament for Madison Memorial High School. The next, she was having surgery to remove a cancerous ovary.

It's been a tough year for the 16-year-old junior, who lost her hair to cancer treatment. But on this particular afternoon at American Family Children's Hospital, Juliette's not undergoing chemotherapy or waiting for lab tests. Instead, she's digging through her bag of funky hats, trying to decide which one goes best with her hoop earrings.

"I've been looking forward to this for a long time," says Juliette, flashing a bright smile and deciding on a sleek black newsboy-style cap that she tilts to the side over one eye like a runway model.

And just like a model, it's time for Juliette's close-up.

Bringing lights, cameras and professional photographers to American Family Children's Hospital each month, the "Flashes of Hope" program transforms a clinic waiting room into a photo studio " offering kids like Juliette a rare break from the emotional and physical rigors of serious illness.

For kids fighting cancer and other life-threatening disease, changes in their appearance can be just as traumatic as surgeries and aggressive treatment regimens. Some lose their hair. Some are jaundiced, or their complexion goes pale. Others bear surgical scars or grapple with dramatic weight loss or gain.

To help them feel better about their changing appearance, Flashes of Hope provides free professional portrait services for the kids and their families. Artfully taken by award-winning volunteer photographers, the classic black and white portrait packages celebrate the child while allowing families to forever capture special moments together.

"We're going to have some fun here today," photographer Jeff Miller declares as he prepares for a shoot with Juliette Walker and her mother, Terry. "This is not going to be your run-of-the-mill, stiff studio portrait."

Capturing "Special Moments"
And indeed, within minutes Juliette and her mom are laughing and mugging for the camera together, while Miller teases Terry about how her tall teenager towers over her. Miller captures several playful mother-daughter moments as they giggle together, either hunching over or standing on tip-toes to stand eye-to-eye.

"I think it's important that this process is a special moment " letting these kids and their parents have fun and be themselves, for even just 10 minutes. That's most important to me," explains Miller, who volunteers his time and equipment for Flashes of Hope photo shoots.

"It's about capturing that little moment " creating that space where hopefully they can take a break for a minute," adds Miller. "If they let me into that moment and I can capture something, that's a huge privilege."

When he's not taking a vacation day to volunteer for Flashes of Hope, Miller is senior photographer for University Communications at UW-Madison and also runs Jeff Miller Photography. In his daily professional work, Miller strives to tell compelling stories through photography by capturing the spirit of people and places. In his Flashes of Hope volunteer work, Miller says it's an honor to use these creative skills for families at American Family Children's Hospital.

As Juliette and her mom looked through Miller's digital shots after their shoot, both mother and daughter were impressed with his work.

"Wow " these are just wonderful," Terry said. Adds Juliette: "I think it'll be really fun to look back on these in a few years."

Terry Walker says her daughter has maintained a healthy outlook throughout her illness and treatment - staying involved in track, swimming and forensics at school, despite her fatigue.

"It's a very potent regimen that she's doing " the side effects are definitely bad " but she's stayed positive," Terry says. "She thought the worst part would be losing her hair."

But Juliette says the initial shock of having a cancerous ovary as a young teen quickly put life into perspective.

"At first, it was really hard to hear," Juliette says. "But after a while, I just realized, people are so nice. I have so many friends who have supported me, and that's really lucky… You really think about that when you go up on the oncology ward, because there are so many kids who are a lot sicker than me."

A Trip to the Hospital Was Never This Glamorous
For teen patients and moms, Flashes of Hope volunteer stylists and makeup artists treat them to mini-makeovers. Volunteers include freelance makeup artist Cynthia Sass and stylist Danielle Kruger from Aniu Salon and Spa.

"It's a chance to have somebody pamper them, for a change," says Trudy Brule, RN, director of the American Family Children's Hospital Flashes of Hope chapter, who is also a nursing coordinator.

"One mom told me she hasn't had her hair done in over a year, so it made her feel like a person again," Brule added. "With so much time spent going to appointments at the clinics and coming to the hospital, things like that are definitely put on the back burner."

Brule established the Madison chapter in June 2007 with a grant from the Cure Kids Cancer Coalition. The national Flashes of Hope organization plans to open chapters in 11 new cities, bringing the total to 30 across the country.

Patients are photographed individually, and also with their family members and favorite staff members. For very young patients, it's often the first " and perhaps only " chance to take a family portrait. Siblings, who may feel overlooked while their brother or sister is hospitalized, are also given their chance to shine in Flashes of Hope photos, Brule says.

"Some of these families practically live at the hospital when they have a sick child," Brule says. "It's nice to give them something fun to do together."

Treasured Keepsakes
At seven months, Emily Hernandez won't remember her Flashes of Hope photo shoot, but her mom Alisha says she'll forever treasure the keepsakes.

During their photo session, Emily's two-year-old brother Alfredo had a blast playing photographer's assistant to Jeff Miller, even taking a few shots of his baby sister himself.

It's been a long journey for Alisha and her family. In June, Alisha traveled from her home in Texas to visit her sister in Green Bay. Six months pregnant, Alisha unexpectedly went into labor and gave birth to Emily, who weighed only one pound 13 ounces.

Emily was transferred from Green Bay to American Family Children's Hospital in Madison, and Alisha and Alfredo have lived at the nearby Ronald McDonald House for several months. Alisha's husband stayed behind at home in Texas to work and attend college classes.

So for the weary family, the Flashes of Hope photo shoot was a welcome break. A little camera-shy at first, Alisha was quickly put at ease as she knelt next to the wagon holding her two children " Emily swaddled in a soft pastel duck blanket and Alfredo clad in a Lightning McQueen t-shirt from the movie "Cars."

"You like to smile " I know you do," Alisha softly coos to Emily, tenderly kissing her daughter on the cheek while Miller captures the touching moment. "Oh, my beautiful baby..."

After the shoot, Alisha said the Flashes of Hope photos are another reason to be grateful for the time her family has spent at American Family Children's Hospital.

"We really feel welcome and well taken care of here," Alisha says. "I'm very thankful for everything."

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