Jimmy Fund Clinic teens and staff bond during ‘awesome’ spring training trip 

It was a weekend long in the waiting, and one that Jarred Eagan, 15, will likely never forget.

After a four-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund Clinic resumed its annual trip to Boston Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers, Florida on March 22-24, 2024. Eagan and 36 other teen and young adult patients, many still in active treatment, had the chance to meet with Red Sox players and then watch them face the Atlanta Braves from luxury suites at JetBlue Park – also known as “Fenway South.” More importantly to event organizers, patients were able to bond there and on airplanes—generously provided by JetBlue—in hotel rooms, and on lazy river rafts with fellow travelers with challenges like their own.

For Eagan, who finished a two-year protocol for T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in December, the trip was both a blast and a revelation. A passionate baseball player and fan, he found he loved hanging out with his new clinic buddies at the waterpark, rock-climbing wall, and golf chipping green – all located on-site at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort where they stayed – as much as he enjoyed meeting Red Sox pitchers Garrett Whitlock, also the 2024 Jimmy Fund Captain, and Tanner Houck.

“The players were all super nice, but I mostly liked hanging out with my friends,” says Eagan. “The trip really brought a bunch of kids together from different walks of life and with different sicknesses. Everyone was friendly, outgoing, and understanding. If someone didn’t feel good, they’d give them a little space if they needed it. Or if they needed a little help, they’d give a hand. It was pretty awesome to see.”

Lisa Scherber, who has headed up the spring training sojourns since their inception in her role as director of Patient and Family Programs at Dana-Farber, was just as delighted.

“We always knew the importance of these weekends for our teen and young adult patients, but not having them since 2019 truly showed us how critical they are in helping them through the most difficult period of their lives,” says Scherber. “These trips are about forming lifelong friendships, and finding the people that will be able to support you through the darkest of times, as well as the brightest of times.”

Sunshine and Acceptance

The days leading up to the sojourn south were exciting ones around the Jimmy Fund Clinic.

“I realized pretty early on in the planning process how much I missed having something fun and concrete to talk about with our teens, especially ones that had been recently diagnosed,” says Kate Nixon, CCLSthe clinic’s adolescent specialist. “So often we hear how isolating treatment can be and these weekend trips are one of the ways we help our teens tackle that feeling.”

The weekend started in rock-star fashion late Friday afternoon, March 22, as the travelers hugged their parents goodbye, loaded onto buses, and were led by a police motorcycle escort down Jimmy Fund Way and on to Logan International Airport. Accompanying them were 16 nurses, two doctors, two psychosocial providers, and eight clinic staff led by Scherber and Nixon.

“I’m super excited,” Jocelyn Coppola, 13, currently in treatment for B-cell leukemia, said before boarding the bus. “It’s been on my mind all week.”

Flying to Florida on JetBlue – which generously sponsored the trip – they arrived at the Hyatt Regency Coconut Point early Saturday morning. That’s where they spent the rest of that day, enjoying activities including the rock-climbing wall, pool, and waterpark. Even patients who regularly use wheelchairs climbed ladders to the top of tall water slides when encouraged by their clinic friends.

“A parent reached out to us before the trip because her son has only been wearing a winter hat since losing his hair,” explains Nixon. “We gave him a few lighter options for the trip, but by mid-morning on Saturday, I didn’t see him put his hat back on. Watching the self-acceptance as a result of the supportive, judgment-free environment they’re in is always emotional!”

Laughs and Memories

Sunday it was off to the ballpark, where the clinic contingent met and posed for photos with Red Sox players before settling into their suites for the afternoon game. Each patient got a bag of goodies including autographed baseballs to remember the weekend, and Hannah Waldon got an extra-special gift for her 18th birthday: after the team sang “Happy Birthday” to her, she joined Wally the Green Monster on the field to yell “Play Ball!” before the first pitch.

By the time they flew home and arrived back at Dana-Farber for pick-up at 1:30 a.m. on Monday, March 25, the travelers were understandably tired. Yet the staff – and some of the patients – were back at the Jimmy Fund Clinic later that morning for treatment.

“We were in the clinic today, and the nurses who went on the trip were all coming over and talking to Jocelyn about it,” her mother, Jillian, shared Monday night. “She had so much fun and got to be a ‘normal kid’ for a weekend. She needed that.”

So did the clinicians and clinic staff.

“The amazing staff that spent their weekend providing the best care to these patients also had the opportunity to connect with each other outside of clinic, which with COVID had not been happening,” says Scherber. “There were a lot of laughs and sharing amazing moments they all witnessed.”

Most important, however, is what staff noticed in patients after the trip.

“It happened again,” says Scherber. “These kids’ lives were changed, and they came back to Boston with a strength they never thought they had – and friends they never knew they needed.”