Gifts That Cost Little or Nothing
. . . for what ails you . . .
  • Communication.  When the crisis strikes,
    the family may or may not have a
    mechanism for getting the word out to
    those who need to know.  Consider
    offering to make phone calls or email
    contacts with those who need to know.  
    Particularly at the beginning of the crisis it
    may be difficult for a parent to maintain
    composure and may need someone else
    to handle the initial contacts.  Make sure
    all who need to know are alerted:

  • Family
  • Close Friends
  • Day Care
  • School (although this may be
    handled by a social worker through
    the hospital or clinic)
  • Church
  • Extra-Curricular Activities, such as
    sports, clubs, scouts

    We found that email "blasts" were an
    efficient way to update everyone who
    wanted to be updated.  Depending on the
    time and skills of the parent, it may be
    helpful to volunteer as the "communication
    officer" and get regular updates out to
    designated people.

    Another option is a service like Caring
    Bridge, which allows people to set up a
    multi-functional web site for patients.  It has
    the advantage of keeping all updates as a
    journal that can be accessed continuously.

    If you are a recipient of an email update or
    consult a patient's web site, please
    comment or reply every now and then to
    let your friend know that you care about
    them and that you read the updates.  If
    you are not a recipient and you think there
    may be email updates, do not be afraid to
    ask to be put on the list.  Parents can be
    reluctant to add you without your request
    because they know that it can be difficult to
    read a play-by-play on a long-term illness
    and they may not want to burden you.

  • Thoughts and prayers.  It is comforting
    to know that your friends are keeping you
    and your child in their thoughts and
    prayers.  The power of this should not be
    underestimated.  Let the family know early
    and often that you are thinking of them.

  • Information.  One of the first "gifts" we
    received was a library book on Leukemia.  
    Our friend took the time to go, find the
    book, and bring it to us.  We found the
    information so valuable that, later, we
    purchased the book so we could keep it for
    continuing reference.  On our second
    round, a friend did some web research and
    emailed us the links to useful sites.

  • Time with the Child.  It is difficult to leave
    an ill child alone, even when he or she is
    surrounded by competent caregivers in the
    hospital.  If you have a good relationship
    with the child or are good with children,
    consider volunteering to relieve the parent
    for a few hours or a day, keeping the child
    company and making sure medical
    information is communicated to the
    parent.  When our daughter was older, we
    still wanted to fight the loneliness factor
    and got several adults who were retired or
    had flexible schedules to come to the
    house or the hospital once a week.  They
    each had special talents or interests to
    share with the child.  Also, public schools
    may provide homebound schooling by
    sending a teacher for a few hours on a few
    days each week.  School district rules
    probably require a responsible adult to be
    in the home with the child during the time
    that the teacher is there.

  • Getting the Patient's Peers to be Good
    Friends.  Kids often don't have a clue how
    to react to a catastrophic illness.  Yet the
    patient still needs the support of peers.  
    Consider providing transportation to get
    the children together.  Be sure to prepare
    the peers for what they will find, for
    instance that their friend will be bald, that
    they will be expected to wash their hands
    when they arrive, etc.  Of course, do not
    bring a friend who has any foreseeable
    illness that the patient would be exposed    
    to.  And if there is no illness in the friend's
    family, the friend could invite the child
    over.  Low immunity means that the child
    cannot be in large groups where there is a
    high risk of infectious disease.  But a visit
    to a single family in their home may not
    pose a risk at all.

  • Help the Family Express Gratitude.  
    While dealing with catastrophic illness may
    not inspire you or your friend to be
    thankful, there are likely to be many caring
    and compassionate people who volunteer
    or make a living making the experience
    more palatable.  An attitude of gratitude is
    healthy, and you can help if you have skills
    to choose a card, write a poem, come up
    with a song parody, or simply write a letter
    to let those people know that the family
    appreciates them.  Those people deserve
    a little extra "fuel" of praise for their
    efforts.  Additionally, it is always nice to
    acknowledge gifts and favors done for the
    family.  Assisting with basic thank-you
    notes may also be helpful.

  • Blood Donation.  Cancer patients
    routinely need blood.  You do not have to
    be the same blood type to help the patient
    out.  By donating at your local blood bank
    for the "account" of the patient, you offset
    the demand on the blood supply and also
    provide a benefit in terms of what the
    insurance company (if applicable) pays
    for.  Supplies tend to run low around the
    winter holidays, so donating often is helpful
    to any number of people.  It really is the
    gift of life.  There are different methods--
    the classic donation of a pint of blood or
    aphoresis, which maximizes the donation--
    so look into the alternatives.  To get
    proper credit to the patient, be sure to
    know his or her full name and the hospital
    where the treatment ordinarily occurs.

    It is possible to do a specific donation to go
    directly to the patient, but in our
    experience, that requires the doctor's
    specific orders and has timing issues.

  • Create a Countdown Poster.  Find out
    how long the treatment is expected to be,
    then make a poster with blocks of shapes
    that the child can color in as treatment is
    completed.  It helps the child see progress
    to the end of the misery.  Note that
    treatments can be delayed, so you might
    want to use elements of treatments as the
    benchmarks and not calendar dates.
  • Services.  If you have a special skill or
    don't mind expending a little elbow grease,
    consider pitching in if the family needs it.  
    Areas to consider are:

  • Child Care and Carpooling.  If
    there are siblings, they may need
    someone to look after them or to get
    them to and from school or other

  • Bookkeeping Medical Bills and
    Insurance Status.  Do not
    volunteer for this unless you are
    really good at understanding and
    recording financial information and
    insurance mumbo jumbo.  There are
    people who are paid to do this kind
    of work, and it is important to get it
    right.  Families with catastrophic
    illnesses are inundated with bills and
    EOBs (explanation of benefits), and
    they are not always accurate or
    intelligible.  Sorting through this
    mess is a difficult, painstaking job.  It
    is not for the faint of heart.

  • Yard Work.  Taking care of the
    yard can be the furthest thing from a
    parent's mind.  Running the lawn
    mower every now and then can be a
    real help.

  • House Work.  While I would never
    want my friends to clean house or
    do my laundry, other families might
    welcome the assistance.

  • Errands.  This is tough, as it is
    difficult to anticipate and schedule
    errands that need to be done--car
    maintenance, dry cleaners, grocery
    shopping, school shopping.  
    Consider volunteering to be a
    runner on a particular afternoon
    once a month or so.  Then be ready
    willing and able to do anything that
    needs to be done on that day.

  • Hair Care.  A child who is
    undoubtedly going to lose his or her
    hair may want to transition to a short
    style before going completely bald.  
    And when the hair starts falling out
    in chunks he or she may want to get
    it over with and shave the rest off.  If
    you know how to do hair, you may
    want to offer to do this in the privacy
    of the family's home or the child's
    hospital room.  Indeed, as this
    happens after treatment has begun,
    the child may not be up to going to a
    barber shop or salon.

  • Manicures/Pedicures.  Given all
    the ways a catastrophic illness can
    impair a child's self esteem, simply
    giving the child a manicure or
    pedicure (especially in the hospital)
    can be a nice boost.  It does not
    have to be professional.  I'll never
    forget a doctor's smirk when he saw
    my 7-year-old's red toenails
    emerging from the hospital sheets
    for an exam.  Note that observation
    of fingernails can be part of the
    medical care, so clear polish may be
    in order (or leave a finger
    uncovered).  Also, oxygen sensors
    commonly put on fingers and toes
    cannot read oxygen levels through
    dark colors of polish.

  • Pet Care.  Particularly during
    hospital admissions, the family may
    have pets that need to be fed or

  • Transportation.  If the hospital is
    far away or if the family has limited
    vehicles, consider providing the
    parent with transportation to and
    from the hospital.  This is also
    helpful when the parent is so
    distracted by the situation as to be a
    hazard behind the wheel.

  • Sick Room.  Open your home to
    members of the patient's family who
    become ill with an ordinary, but
    contagious bug.  Chemotherapy
    suppresses the patient's immune
    system, and the patient needs to be
    shielded from ordinary colds and
    flu.  If you are healthy and can take
    the risk, consider making the
    sacrifice and help the sick family
    member rest and recover in your
    home.  Alternatively, you could offer
    your home as a "clean room" for the
    original patient while the family
    member recovers.

  • Hair Donation.  Like most blood
    donations, hair donations do not go to the
    specific patient.  However, if you have long
    hair and don't mind cutting it, consider a
    donation to an organization like Wigs for
    Kids.  It lets the patient know that you care
    about their situation.  Note that not all wig
    organizations provide wigs for cancer
    patients who have a temporary hair loss.  
    So you might want to be careful where you

  • Voluntary Baldness.  You have probably
    seen news stories where a father or others
    shaved their heads bald in sympathy with a
    chemotherapy patient.

  • Laughter.  Find a way to share a joke, a
    funny movie, or otherwise have some fun
    with your friend.