Making Christmas memories at Riley



Tree Trimming Web

Riley’s annual tree-trimming party is just what the doctor ordered to bring a dose of holiday spirit to patients and families.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist,

La’Tavia Smith is holding court at one of the craft tables set up at the annual tree-trimming party in the Simon Family Lobby at Riley Hospital for Children.

As young members of the Indiana Ballet Conservatory dance to the music of “The Nutcracker” in the background, this 8-year-old keeps up a running dialogue with anyone who sits down, while at the same time concentrating on the many ornaments she is making, including one for her dog.

La’Tavia is one of dozens of Riley patients who’ve come down from their rooms to help decorate a Christmas tree in the lobby, a tradition that goes back more than 25 years for the hospital.

Her mom, Sasha Hagan, watches from behind as the second-grader gives tips to other kids – and adults – at the table.

“She is sassy,” Hagan says, smiling. “She keeps the nurses on their toes.”

La’Tavia is recovering from spinal surgery, a procedure that came with major risks.

“We’ve been coming back and forth to Riley for over four years,” Hagan said. “She is very determined and a fighter. I told her she could get her ears pierced if she fought through this surgery.”

No doubt La’Tavia will hold her to that promise.

At the next table over, Jose Torreblanca Jr., 8, and his sister, Olivia, 6, are busy making stars and reindeer and snowmen – some to put on the tree, others to take home.

Jose has been a Riley kid since he was 6 months old, his mom said. He has seen just about every specialist there is – gastrointestinal, neuro, pulmonary, cardiology, ENT, genetics. The list goes on and on.

“Science hasn’t caught up with him yet,” his mom said.

But they’ve had a front-row seat to the growth of the hospital in those eight years.

“When we first started coming to Riley, this part (Simon Family Tower) didn’t exist. It’s been fun to see the evolution.”

Jose is here this visit for GI problems – he hasn’t been able to tolerate his liquid diet. But soon, his mom hopes he will be back to playing soccer and jumping on the trampoline.

It’s his third visit to Riley since March, something that frustrates his mom, but she has learned to deal with the ups and downs of his health.

“I used to get really down and upset, but I’ve just come to terms with it. We just deal with the symptoms that are happening now.”

As she talks, Jose turns to present her with an ornament he has made. It says “I love Mommy.” She hides the tears as she wraps him in a hug.

Moments like that are why John Eby and Alan Ferrara love to help with this party. The Riley electricians put up the tree and help the kids add their homemade ornaments to it.

“This is my Christmas,” Eby said. “I haven’t put up a Christmas tree at home in I don’t know how many years, but I do it here for the kids.”

Ferrara, who had five kids at home, agrees that it’s all about the children.

“It puts a smile on their faces and helps them forget what they’re going through.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist,