Photo sessions are morale boosters for sick children, their families - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 18, 2008  |  Posted by Diana Nelson Jones

Two-year-old Connor Vickers sat on the stool like a life-size doll, his legs dangling, his head cocked in a grin that melted onlookers in the hallway. On his head, a little hat, a cross between a do-rag and a toboggan cap, read "Cancer fears ME."

He sits every week for a chemotherapy drip via a port below his right collarbone, but yesterday's treatments made him laugh and play a sort of combat version of patty-cake with his sister.

"Wonderful," Michael Haritan said from behind his camera as he crouched and moved left, right and backward around an oncology staff conference room at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. For several hours yesterday, it was a photo studio.

Mr. Haritan, a commercial photographer, volunteered for 10, 20-minute sessions to document the way children look when they nestle their heads in their father's neck or squash their cheek against a sister's cheek, not the way disease tries to make them look.

Yesterday's was the fourth photo session at Children's since Carla Mooney founded the Pittsburgh-area Flashes of Hope chapter, one of 30 in the nation, in April. She moved here from Philadelphia, when her son, Daniel, was first being treated for leukemia.

"I mistakenly assumed Flashes of Hope was at every children's hospital," she said, "but there wasn't one here."

As the local coordinator, she arranges photo sessions each month at Children's for patients who have life-threatening illnesses and their families. They get the photos and a CD to make more copies.

"This was an opportunity to do something a little more personal, something that touches me. These kids are putting on their best faces, from inside," said Mr. Haritan, who has donated time to various causes, including the United Way's Day of Caring. "If they get positive reinforcement for how they look, they might feel better."

When Nichelle Patterson, 11, settled onto the stool, her shoulder-length curls bounced and she made a quick, funny face at her mother, who stood in the doorway. She looked without pretense at Mr. Haritan and smiled coolly.

After a few shots, she became more animated. She stood, tugged the curls off and tossed them in a chair, revealing a long scar along the center of her scalp. She returned to the stool, tapped it several times to summon her brother and sister, then knelt between them.

As the whole family joined the picture, he said, "Let's let Dad sit in the chair."

"But he might break it," quipped Nichelle.

Diana Patterson's eyes welled as she stood to the left of her daughter, who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in February.

The photo session "was a nice experience," said Mrs. Patterson later. "It made her feel good."

Little Connor Vickers, surrounded by his doctor, nurse and physician's assistant, showed his comic side, making faces and adorable moves that reduced them to spasms of laughter. Near the doorway, Marci Vickers discussed her son's condition, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

"He doesn't like his medicine, but he knows that he has a bad boo-boo he has to have treatment for, and he knows the word cancer," said Ms. Vickers, of North Huntingdon.

Besides the weekly chemo drip, she said he is taking medicine daily by mouth.

"Kids take their clues from us, so I stay calm and positive," she said. "And he is doing well. He is seven weeks from maintenance [therapy], and he will be 3 next week."

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