Karen Rutherford (third from left) and members of her family gather for a photo last year at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston. The Rutherfords volunteer annually to help serve Thanksgiving dinner to children with cancer and their families who are unable to be at home. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

How thankfulness comes full circle with holiday dinner at hospital

At exactly noon on Thanksgiving Day, the long tables outside the family room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egleston will be set, laden with fried turkey, ham, mac and cheese, sweet potatoes and other Thanksgiving Day fare.

And though it will be set on the floor of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, it will smell like the buttery finish of the yeast rolls and crave-worthy stuffing; feel, however short, a little like home, the one place all of us long to be during the holidays.

Indeed, some children got the coveted 24-hour furlough, but for the sickest among them and their families, there is no such reprieve. They must remain at Thanksgiving, at Christmas.

Karen Rutherford and her family know what that’s like. They have been there.

And so on Thanksgiving Day, as they did last year for the first time, the Rutherfords will postpone their family dinner until the 40 or so kids at Egleston and their families have enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner first, compliments of Copeland’s of New Orleans.

If your mouth has suddenly started salivating, I get it. The cooks at Copeland’s can burn.

According to Kristin Connor, executive director of the nonprofit CURE Childhood Cancer, the restaurant has been donating holiday lunch and dinners at both Scottish Rite and Egleston since 2011.

Long before then, however, there were meals. Dr. Abdel Ragab, who passed away in 2017, saw to it.

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Ragab, a pediatric oncologist, Connor told me, founded CURE in 1975 when children with cancer had to leave Atlanta to see a pediatric oncologist.

“When he got here, he realized there were no research or support programs for families,” Connor said.

Worse, at that time, kids were treated in a trailer on the Emory hospital campus and getting infusions in storage closets. Things were pretty awful.

With help from patients’ families, Ragab began raising money to build a research lab and purchase equipment he needed to correctly diagnose leukemia. For the first few years, that was the focus. By the mid-1980s, however, it was becoming more and more obvious his patients’ families needed help, too.

CURE then launched Open Arms, serving dinners to families on Thursday night. The program, Connor said, has since expanded to three days a week, serving lunch on Tuesdays and Fridays, dinner on Thursdays and one Saturday a month. In all, the program serves about 18,000 people a year, including the doctors and nurses on the hospitals’ cancer floor.

“We arrange for the food and then have volunteers who help us serve,” she said.

CURE staff members Karen Rutherford (second from left) and Rhetta Ascari serve lunch in the family room of the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. CONTRIBUTED
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

That’s where families like the Rutherfords come in, but the work generally starts with a cancer diagnosis of their own.

In a second-floor office at CURE recently, Karen Rutherford of Lilburn recalled the moment a bump on her daughter Katie’s chin put them on this journey.

Katie was 15 and the lump, she said, wasn’t even visible to her or Katie’s father, Tony.

“We thought it was acne,” she said. “We took her to two different dermatologists, and they treated it with retinol.”

But the bump kept growing.

The Rutherfords soon found themselves in a hospital emergency room, where doctors ordered an ultrasound. Thinking the bump was cellulitis, they prescribed an antibiotic and told the family it should go away within the week.

It didn’t. The bump just got bigger.

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By January 2016, the visits to the doctor were becoming the norm. When one of them ordered a biopsy, the family finally had an answer. The bump on Katie’s chin was rhabdo, short for rhabdomyosarcoma, the most common type of soft tissue sarcoma in children.

“The next week, we had a whole day of doctors appointments,” Rutherford said. “They did a PET scan and MRI to see if the cancer had spread, a CAT scan and another ultrasound. Around 5 p.m., we met with the oncologist, entered into the world of childhood cancer and got the CURE tote.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For the next 48 weeks, Katie would undergo several different chemotherapies, including a round that required several overnight hospital stays, when Rutherford said she first became a beneficiary of Open Arms’ meal service.

“It was just one less thing I had to think about and not leave her side,” she said. “It might not sound like a big deal to go down to the cafeteria, but I didn’t want to leave her.”

Katie was a teen. Now imagine having to leave your toddler to get something to eat.

Rutherford said encountering children of all races, nationalities, ages and genders during Katie’s clinical visits changed her. It didn’t seem right that children would have to suffer so much.

“It broke my heart,” she said.

It also moved her to want to help. She didn’t know how until one day she saw a post for a manager of patient and family services at CURE on Facebook and applied.

She got the job managing Open Arms’ lunch and counseling programs. Last year, she recruited her parents, two siblings and brother-in-law to help serve the Thanksgiving Day meal.

This year, they will do it again. It’s their way of sharing their own good fortune, Katie’s especially.

Today she’s an 18-year-old Valdosta State freshman, who, her mother said, is living life and thankful for nearly two years without cancer.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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