Exchanging Dollar Bills for Duck Bills

It’s been 13 years since Molly Alspaugh first met the Sipos family. 

Their paths crossed during the construction of the freestanding Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Rob Sipos was a project engineer for Centex Rodgers, the construction firm tasked with building the pediatric health care facility. Alspaugh, a senior interior designer with ESa is the architectural and design firm responsible for the hospital.

Alspaugh remembers when Sipos’ son, Gabe, was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in 2002. One Christmas, her firm purchased everything on Gabe’s entire wish list.

“It was amazing,” recalled Lu Sipos. “Some of those toys are still being used by children in our neighborhood. They have been well-loved for sure,” she laughed.

“It didn’t surprise me when Molly decided to help Gabe’s Chemo Duck program recently. It has been very fulfilling to reunite with so many friends who supported our family when Gabe was sick and to know that they continue to support children living with cancer … well it’s hard to even put into words!”

Alspaugh said the ESa’s motto – for the kids – was a consistent theme during the hospital build more than a decade ago. It continues to play a role in the firm’s commitment to community outreach.

The company hosts $5 Fridays as a way to raise money for various charities and recently sponsored a dress-down day to support Chemo Duck.

“When we saw that there was a way for us to help kids out – we were in,” she said. “We raised $500 for Chemo Duck. It was one of the most successful ones ever.”

The personal connection to the family was a definite appeal for donations, she said. The company plans to host another event next year.

The first week of August the Sipos family met with ESa employees at its Nashville offices. The gathering was a great reminder of the impact their work has on families, Alspaugh said.

“There were a lot of our folks who worked with Rob on the Children’s Hospital project and remembered Gabe’s story and the tough journey they traveled.

“It was great to be able to see Gabe – he is such an outgoing young man and truly inspirational and to learn what he is doing to develop Chemo Duck and the role he plays in the program was really neat. The last time we saw him he was just a baby and now he is making a difference in the world.

“It was truly gratifying to see the success of Chemo Duck,” she added.

“It’s wonderful that it is so effective and on such a global scale.”

Sipos said the fundraiser held by ESa will provide Chemo Ducks to 16 patients.

Courage Kits Offer (Huggable) Hope for Siblings

Ten-year-old Alexia had been worried about her baby sister Ayla as the one-year-old endured cancer treatments. When Alexia received a special Sibling Courage Kit from the Cooper Trooper Foundation, it was “a nice surprise that she got something for herself,” says her mom, Dana Ochoa.

Inside Alexia’s Courage Kit was a Huggable Hope that matched her sister’s Chemo Duck. “Most of our attention has shifted to Ayla, so we worried that Alexia feels left out sometimes,” says Dana. The Courage Kit helped her feel included. “Such a sweet thing, and it was comforting for her to know she was involved,” says Dana. “Alexia sleeps with her Hope duck every night.” 

As part of a new partnership between Gabe’s Chemo Duck and Cooper Trooper Foundation, Huggable Hope ducks are now included in the Courage Kits distributed to siblings of children diagnosed with cancer at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt (MCJCHV). Courage Kits are also available by request online.

“Huggable Hope ducks are a great addition to our Courage Kits,” says Missy Cook, who founded the Cooper Trooper Foundation with her husband, Rod, after their youngest son, Cooper, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer and they recognized a huge need for hospital-based sibling resources for parents.

“Children diagnosed with cancer receive a Chemo Duck to bring them comfort and provide education on their new diagnosis, so it only makes sense to give siblings, who often feel left out yet are fighting alongside their brother or sister, their own similar companion duck.”

Alexia and Ayla love their special ducks in special ways, says mom Dana. Knowing that “Gabe” has a matching port makes all the difference for Ayla. “The port is a big part of the chemo journey, so it’s neat for her to see it on Gabe. She’s not the only one—Gabe has a port, too! And Alexia likes that her Hope duck matches her sister’s. It’s so cute to see them side-by-side with their ducks!”

Courage Kits also include a tee-shirt, courage medal, journal/pen, personalized certificate, a book for siblings of children diagnosed with a chronic illness and more.

Both Gabe’s and Cooper Trooper are the result of families personally touched by childhood cancer. “We realize how devastating it can be,” says Cook.

Providing support for the entire family is Cooper Trooper’s mission, and Gabe’s My Heart aligns perfectly with that. “We’re helping to provide support, education and encouragement to families whose worlds have been turned upside down by childhood cancer. We want siblings to know they’re not forgotten.”

“Watching her sister go through this, it’s scary for Alexia,” says Dana. “It’s a very stressful time.” The girls’ father, Joel, is about to deploy to Afghanistan. “Hope will be there to give Alexia someone to hug when her daddy’s not here,” says Dana. “She’ll give her courage.”

Purchase a Huggabe Hope for someone you love today!

Vanderbilt Celebrates 10 years of Chemo Duck

Chemo Duck turns 10

For ten years Chemo Duck has helped thousands of children treated for cancer across the globe.

Organizers of Chemo Duck held a birthday party to mark the milestone with nearly 50 party goers at the hospital where he was born – the Monroe Carell Jr Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.

Each guest enjoyed cake and cookies from Cakes Against Cancer for Kids, decorated rubber ducks and Chemo Duck bandanas.

Lu Sipos, the founder of Chemo Duck, said the plush toy is more than a stuffed animal – it is an educational intervention that serves as a therapeutic tool to help children better understand the various treatments they will experience while undergoing therapy.

Chemo Duck turns 10

Chemo Duck turns 10“Over the past decade there have been many changes to Chemo Duck,” said Sipos. “The program has grown into far more than just a stuffed duck. We have come up with a variety of resources, games, videos and other educational tools to help kids cope with cancer.

“He gives parents a view into their child’s mind and he gives children a way to express themselves. Our focus has always been to guide families through that initial, brutal first few weeks and then provide them with much-needed comfort and companionship.”

Chemo Duck turns 10Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital is where Chemo Duck held its first launch party which made it very fitting to mark a decade of service at the very same place, smiled Sipos.

“I am so thankful for Vanderbilt and the support shown to us over the years,” said Sipos. “It all started right here and look at where we are now.”

Chemo Duck turns 10

As part of the birthday celebration, Chemo Duck donated six rainbow loom kits – one of the hottest crafting projects on the market – to the hospital. The kit consists of two plastic template boards, a hook, 24 plastic clips and 600 multicolored mini rubber bands – typically used to make friendship bracelets, rings and more.

Chemo Duck Celebrates 10 Years

Ten years ago, what started as a light-hearted way for one family to cope with the harsh introduction to cancer, has become an international educational tool for patients, families and health care providers.

Chemo Duck, the bright yellow, hospital scrubs and bandana-wearing stuffed animal, has come a long way since it made its first unofficial appearance in 2002.

Lu Sipos’ son, Gabe, was diagnosed in 2002 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a tumor of the muscles that is attached to the bones. For Gabe, the cancer was in the right side of his jaw and sinus passage.

“When I made Gabe’s duck, I was looking for a way to bring some comfort to my child,” said Sipos. “It was also a way to show a little humor for the nurses and doctors,” said Sipos. “I really thought it was a prop that would make them all laugh and then when we went home I’d put it away on a shelf. Fortunately, that is not what happened. The duck ended up becoming a source of comfort for my son as well as a valuable tool used to show Gabe what was going to happen to him during treatments.” 

In 2004, Sipos founded the non-profit called Gabe’s My Heart to mass produce Chemo Ducks.

“I never pushed Chemo Duck to grow,” said Sipos. “It grew on its own. It grew out of necessity. Others saw our duck and wanted one. And that led to my making a few and it just caught on.”

Little did Sipos know that the stuffed animal she sewed as an icebreaker during her son’s first visit to the pediatric oncology clinic at the Monroe Carell Jr Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt would grow into the lovable, source of comfort her then nearly one-year-old son craddled throughout his cancer journey.

Chemo Duck has served as a therapeutic agent for newly diagnosed pediatric patients all across the globe. There have been 2,300 ducks produced.

Chemo Duck is much more than the stuffed animal. Each duck has a catheter sewn into its chest to resemble the line that is central to a chemotherapy patient’s treatment. The educational program comes with a video and two books. The website features cartoons, printable activities and a song. This fall, Sipos expects to launch a Chemo Duck app.

What makes celebrating the ten-year mark with Chemo Duck more special, says Sipos, is that Gabe is taking a very active role in the program that was initially created for him.

Recently, the 12-year-old received regional recognition through the Kohls Kids Care Scholarship for his volunteer work.

“I am really proud of his becoming more a part of the program,” said Sipos. “I feel so glad that he is getting recognized for the work that he is doing. The idea that he wants to be a part of this and wants to give back makes me proud as a parent.”

As a voting member of the board of directors for Gabe’s My Heart, Gabe has had several opportunities to interact with the public and explain the Chemo Duck program.

“He has taken a real interest in our events and especially working with the kids,” said Sipos. “That is an area where he excels. He is a natural when it comes to interacting with people.”

As Chemo Duck celebrates 10 years of providing necessary information for patients, families and practitioners, Sipos shares one of her dreams:

“Now, I want Chemo Duck to be to kids with cancer what Mickey Mouse is to all kids – something that creates a smile on a child’s face.”

As part of the anniversary celebration, Chemo Duck will host a birthday party at Children’s Hospital on August 6 at 2:30 p.m. at the stage. Fans are also invited to submit birthday greetings by posting a creative, fun or inspiring photo or video message to Chemo Duck’s Facebook page. Post between August 5 and August 10 at midnight. A winner will be announced on the Facebook page on August 13 (the actual 10th birthdate) and will receive a $100.00gift card to Amazon.com and have 10 Chemo Ducks donated to a hospital of their choice.

Sarah’s Six Funds a Flock

Sarah Bonnell, at age 7, and Gabe Sipos, then age 1, had chemotherapy in the same clinic at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital every week for nearly a year. The two small children bonded, as they shared the same rare cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma.

“We knew the original Chemo Duck,” says Sarah’s mom, Diane.

Now 18, Sarah graduated from high school last month in the top ten in her class. She remembers those difficult days in the hospital with clarity. “I thought Gabe’s duck was amazing,” she says. Though her own stuffed toy, a special bear, comforted her during treatments, “I admired Gabe’s duck’s little port and his blood pressure cuffs,” she recalls. “I kind of understood what was happening in the hospital, but Gabe was so young, he had no comprehension about it all. His special duck helped make it seem less threatening, less scary.” 

Sarah and her family wanted to share that comfort with other kids going through a similar experience. Together with Lu Sipos, creator of Gabe’s Chemo Duck program™, they created “Sarah’s Six.” Each month, the family funds six Chemo Ducks for delivery to children at three U.S. hospitals.

“We’ve always been inspired and humbled by Lu’s work,” says Diane. “We’ve watched in awe as she’s built and devoted her life to her foundation, and though we’ve made contributions from time to time, we decided we wanted to make a commitment to do more directed giving.

“It’s a way for us to pay forward everything that was done for Sarah and the people that impacted our lives along the way,” she says. “It’s not a lot—it’s a small contribution, but we’re so honored to be a part of this organization.”

Sarah chose Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital to receive the first round of Sarah’s Six Chemo Ducks, in honor of the life-saving care she received there. Thereafter, a monthly contest sponsored by Gabe’s My Heart will invite supporters and fans to designate three hospitals to receive Sarah’s Six each month (plus all other single duck orders place that month).

“We believe God took a small piece of heaven and sat it down in the place where Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital stands,” says Diane. “When Gabe and his family and Sarah and our family were all there together, it was one small area on the fifth floor of the old children’s section. They took such good care of us. I could give you a story about each one of the doctors, nurses and staff.” Even when Sarah relapsed, she says, “they were always in our corner. Ten years later, they still are.”

“First Gabe and I had chemo together, and now to be able to team up with his organization and try to make a difference for kids, it’s amazing,” says Sarah. “It’s an honor.”

She’s grateful to be a part of helping kids better understand and gain some comfort during their treatment. “The Chemo Ducks help make cancer treatments a better experience,” she notes. “It’s awful either way, but Chemo Duck helps make it more kid-friendly, helps take a little bit of the edge off.”

“Being there from the beginning, seeing Gabe’s duck program grow and expand to 150 hospitals is awesome,” she says. “We’re honored to team with this really successful organization that reaches multiple kids.”

You can create your own personalized form of directed giving like the Bonnell family did with Sarah’s Six. To learn more, please email us at info@chemoduck.org.

Chemo Duck Cartoon Premiere: It’s a Wrap!

On Saturday, January 5, Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program premiered the “Making Friends with Chemo Duck” 

cartoon at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. The cartoon was shown in the Children’s Hospital Theater and to the kids receiving in-patient care. The event, presented by BL Harbert International, was free and featured red carpet makeovers, pictures, celebrity goody bags, snacks and more! The cartoon was a big hit and it will soon be available On Demand through EZTV for all patients at Vanderbilt’s Children’s Hospital to view.

A portion of the cartoon has been available on YouTube for two years. It has been viewed more than 11,000 times. The additional final four minutes of

 educational material will allow us to teach thousands of children about chemotherapy in a child-friendly, non-threatening manner. The video sheds light on some of the struggles children go through and reiterates the fact that they haven’t done anything wrong and that they are still the same kid on the inside. Thecartoon appeals to children of all ages and helps them understand that they are not alone.

The production of the cartoon took three years to create and has been a true labor of love. We are so grateful to everyone who took part in the production of the cartoon, for the generous sponsorships and for the helpful on-site management of the event. It’s a huge step toward our goal of reaching out to children with cancer and helping to provide comfort, education and hope during a very challenging time.