'Sam is always there': Child life specialist helps 4-year-old adapt to cancer therapy

Richard Reeve
Updated: September 25, 2020 11:46 AM
Created: September 24, 2020 10:26 PM

This is the story of a very special friendship between 4-year-old Harper Mahle and her certified child life specialist, Sam Schackman. 

"I mean, when Sam's around, no one else exists," said Harper's mom, Marissa Mahle. "Parenting a kid with childhood cancer is totally unknown, and she's been through it a bunch and she's incredible."  


Schackman, who works out of Children's Minnesota Cancer and Blood Disorders Clinic, says she's privileged to be a part of her young patient's story.  

"What's a better honor than a little kid calling you their best friend," she said. "I can't think of a higher compliment than that."

In February, at the very start of the pandemic, Harper was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL. 

"The first question out of our mouths: 'Is she going to die?'" Marissa Mahle said. 

ALL is a cancer that produces malignant white blood cells that can travel within the body.

For Harper, it began with a fever, and pain in her legs. But after testing, there was at least a bit of good news from the doctor. 

"He said… 'She will be cured at some point. The remission rate is 98%. The cure rate in the low 90s.'" 

But now, Harper has to undergo weekly chemotherapy. 

One of Schackman's jobs is to get her used to the process, including talking about how ALL is affecting her body and explaining the use of her port, a surgically implanted entry point for an IV. 

Harper demonstrated the cleaning process before the insertion of the IV on a doll for us.

"Because we know play is how kids learn, so breaking it down through medical play or just different things to help kids understand. That's what we do here at ChildLife," Schackman said. "One of the ways I describe it is that their blood is sick and these are medicines to get their blood healthy again."

Harper is not alone. 

Children's Minnesota treats more than 1,000 cases of childhood cancer every year, nearly 60% of all children diagnosed in Minnesota and 74% of those diagnosed in the Twin Cities. 

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and the facility has launched its annual Shine Bright for Cancer Kids campaign, a month-long fundraiser that supports metro area kids fighting cancer. 

The fund helps families to access services like music therapy, meals, transportation, and more. 

"That helps pay for things like the books we use to self-educate on their diagnosis about their bodies; it pays for our play materials," Schackman notes. 

A special friendship, but also survival for youngsters like Harper, and hope. 

"Sam is always there, reassuring Harper, letting her know that everything is going OK and we're doing the right thing to care for her," Marissa Mahle said. "This is going to be what I hope a lifelong bond. Sam is such a special person." 

Harper still has between 18 months and two more years of chemotherapy to go. 

Her parents are looking forward to the day she can attend school. 

"We really want kids to feel normal," Schackman says. "Cancer or a blood disorder is part of their life, but it doesn't define who they are." 

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