Pediatric Patients Celebrate High School Graduations at Annual Convocation

Michael Rucci addresses his fellow graduates.

Michael Rucci addresses his fellow graduates.

To the strains of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons, Spring” and a standing ovation, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Department of Pediatrics Class of 2011 — 29 young men and women — entered the Pediatric Day Hospital’s Recreation Center on June 8 to take their places for the department’s fifth annual Convocation. They were representatives of the more than 50 Memorial Sloan Kettering patients or former patients who earned their high school or high school equivalency diplomas this spring despite the challenge of having been treated for cancer. Indeed, several students — as evidenced by IV poles and masks — were still in active treatment.

Welcoming graduates, their families, friends, and Memorial Sloan Kettering clinical and support staff, Department of Pediatrics Vice Chair Paul A. Meyers said, “The students we honor all took a detour on their way to this day. In the midst of treatment it’s easy to lose sight of the goal, to concentrate on the challenges of the day, to regret time lost, celebrations missed or delayed. That makes it all the more important to recognize this accomplishment.”

Memorial Hospital Physician-in-Chief Robert E. Wittes lauded the graduates, saying, “In the face of major challenges you stuck with it and are sticking with it now. You learned from your experiences and turned sickness into strength.”

Two graduates addressed the gathering. Jenna Miller, a 15-year neuroblastoma survivor, observed, “This ceremony is really a way to inspire other patients and show what we can do. All of us here today prove that we are stronger than cancer.” Michael Rucci, a survivor of acute myelogenous leukemia, said, “Behind every face in this room is a story that no other can tell about a fight most can barely comprehend — because there are few who can understand what it’s like to be on the front lines against a faceless enemy with unparalleled stealth…Though this disease may make us frail and weak, we are the strongest people alive. We can overcome anything that is set against us…We truly are the future, because it’s people like us with stories to tell, strength of heart, and experience to act upon, who have the ability to make this world a better place.”

“Moms and dads have dreams for their kids — when they’re just starting to walk, when they’re going off to school — and sometimes they are faced with this issue of cancer. Suddenly the dreams seem to crash,” noted Richard J. O’Reilly, Chair of the Department of Pediatrics, in his keynote address. “But they don’t crash. And today is testimony to that… Never give up your dreams.”

During the ceremony, Mary Maher, principal of hospital schools for the New York City Department of Education, joined Dr. Meyers in presenting the graduates with Department of Education awards along with special Memorial Sloan Kettering certificates of achievement. Two of these honor the memories of M. Lois Murphy and Charlotte Tan. Dr. Murphy was a former Chair of Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Department of Pediatrics and Dr. Tan a former member of the department. Both physicians were leaders in developing treatments for childhood cancer. The awards recognize “superior ability to show great strength, poise of character, and enormous discipline toward education.”

Memorial Sloan Kettering President Craig B. Thompson concluded the program. “You have shown tremendous courage and perseverance in facing the challenge of fighting cancer,” Dr. Thompson said. “And we, the staff of Memorial Sloan Kettering, celebrate with you. We’ll be forever enriched by being part of your lives and we look forward to seeing you grow and prosper as you go forward from this day.”