‘Peds Pals’ mentor young patients at Upstate Cancer Center

SUNY Upstate

Brianna Belair, 13, with her "Peds Pals," Upstate medical students Heli Shah, left, and Hannah Carroll, at the Waters Center for Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders. Photos by Jim McKeever.

Just how much of an impact do Upstate’s “Peds Pals” have on young patients at the Waters Center for Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders?

“The difference in the kids’ lives is just mind-boggling,” said Kristi Griffin, Education Specialist at the center, on the third floor of the Upstate Cancer Center.

The program matches pairs of Upstate medical students – usually a first-year and a second-year – with pediatric patients.

“We have 10 patients, several with sickle cell disease, some with chronic illnesses and some who are in remission,” Griffin said.

SUNY Upstate Waters Center

Brianna Belair with "Peds Pal" Heli Shah.

The students are required to meet once a week with their “little pal,” but Griffin said most meet more than that. “It’s completely individualized with each patient,” she said.

The get-togethers are a mix of academic tutoring and recreation, including trips to the mall or other fun spots. Mentoring is the crux of the program, Griffin said.

Some students accompany Griffin to meetings with their pal’s teachers, who are “very receptive” to having the medical students help with specific academic needs, she said.

First-year student Hannah Carroll and second-year student Heli Shah are paired with Brianna Belair. Brianna, 13, is in remission after treatment for a brain tumor that was discovered when she was in kindergarten.

“The Peds Pals program is very personal,” said Hannah, whose youngest sister is Brianna’s age. “You meet one-on-one and build a relationship. You get to know them a little more and that makes a difference.”

Heli said it’s satisfying to see Brianna improve her memory and math skills. There are other rewards as well.

“Last year I worked with another child who is now in treatment,” Heli said. “I went to her appointments with her and became a source of comfort. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of how much pain the treatments cause. I’m able to see (cognitive) improvements in Brianna, and able to see the patient’s perspective of treatment.”

SUNY Upstate Cancer Center

Brianna Belair plays a board game with her "Peds Pals" to improve her memory.

Brianna, a sixth-grader in the North Syracuse school district, engages in lively banter with Hannah and Heli during their weekly sessions at the Upstate Cancer Center. She enjoys doing arts & crafts and playing board games with them. “But I especially like it when they take me out for ice cream,” she said.

Brianna’s mother, Ann Belair, said Brianna’s academics have improved, and her daughter is comfortable being with Hannah and Heli. “She just thinks she’s a big girl when she’s with them,” Ann Belair said.

The program does have some risks, which the medical students know going in. The death of a “little pal” last year was very difficult for the two students paired with her, said Griffin, who gave the students a break from the program.

“Experiencing the death or relapse of a patient is something that medical professionals have to deal with, some more than others,” Griffin said. “I remind the Pals every time we get together that they may never know the impact they have on a person.

“I have a magnet on my desk that says, ‘You never know when you are making a memory,’ and I truly believe that,” she said. “There may be struggles and heartaches along the way, but what they are doing is life-changing. And that’s what Peds Pals is all about.”

SUNY Upstate Cancer Center

Brianna Belair works on her math homework with help from "Peds Pal" Hannah Carroll.


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