MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- People the world over celebrate in December. From Hanukkah to Kwanzaa and Christmas to Yule, the end of the year is a joyful time.
Madigan Army Medical Center observed the season with its Christmas tree and Menorah lighting ceremony in the Medical Mall on Dec. 6.
Each year, one of the highlights of the event is watching one of Madigan's youngest patients help the commander throw the switch.
Nailah Mase is a pint-sized, walking definition of joyful. Decked out in a red dress and sparkling boots that drew compliments from most everyone who crossed her path, the 6-year-old stepped up to the commander's side and shone brightly.
"It's great for her to get the chance to do this and get recognized a bit. The kids are the true heroes," said Col. (Dr.) David Harper, Nailah's main doctor in the Hematology/Oncology Clinic in the Department of Pediatrics at Madigan.
"Nailah is just a child that is full of joy. She has endured quite a bit of not very fun stuff; she recovers really well and is back to her joyful self," said Andi Howe, a registered nurse who is another integral part of the team working to cure Nailah's Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis.
As with true cancers, LCH is not always an obvious diagnosis for the symptoms a child can display initially. Nailah developed a limp and was experiencing pain. While the designation of LCH as a cancer, which is how it appears but not necessarily functions, is in question, what was not up for debate was whether Nailah needed medical attention.
When Staff Sgt. Isaac Mase, a Soldier with 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment of the 1-2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team and his wife Keesha first took their eldest child Nailah to a local emergency room, they needed an answer and a path forward.
Those came through a phone call from Madigan when her primary care manager noticed she had visited the ER recently. She was scheduled for follow up and her diagnosis and treatment were determined this March.
"People sometimes ask, 'How can you do the job that you do?' and my response is always, well, if you knew the kids, you couldn't do any other job. Nailah illustrates that," said Harper. "She comes in, she gets poked, she gets prodded, she has to take medicines, but she's never down or complains about it," he added.
Col. Thomas Bundt, Madigan's commander, spoke of the Mase family during the lighting ceremony, acknowledging their initial fear, but that it was tempered.
"They were relieved because they trust Madigan's nurses and physicians, administrators and staff and helpers all around to get them through the challenging times in their lives. I can say there is no greater honor to our staff than to be able to provide that," Bundt said.
The Mase family attests to the ease with which they are now completing Nailah's treatment.
"It was scary finding out, but then after that it became really easy," said Isaac.
"They've really helped relieve a lot of our stresses about her health," agreed Keesha.
"Dr. Harper is a really good doctor and we have two amazing nurses, Andi and Kirstin (Vanhoute)," added Isaac. Keesha noted, "They've got a good connection together."
Nailah's initial symptoms have been relieved and her team is very optimistic that her health challenges will be behind her soon.
Her parents and 15-month-old brother Ari sat in the Medical Mall alongside last year's family, the Bells.
Last year, Keegan Bell helped Bundt light the tree and Menorah. This year, her mother Jessica, father Thad and sister Tierney attended at Bundt's invitation. Keegan lost her battle with cancer this summer and Bundt wanted to ensure the family knows that Madigan will always be at the ready to support them.
Standing in front of a tree that, for the 25th year Dorrie Carr and her family decorated as volunteers with the help of Henry Hyde from Madigan's Facilities Management Division, Private 1st Class Christopher Blanshard, from the Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care, the host of the ceremony, informed the crowd of the importance of the tree this time of year.
"For thousands of years, evergreens trees and plants have been used to celebrate winter festivals. Pagans in Europe used branches of evergreen fir trees to decorate their homes and brighten their spirits during the darkness of winter and remind them of the new way of life that comes with spring," said Blanshard. "May you be reminded that it is more than just a tree; it is a symbol of new life and hope that exists during the dark, winter times of our lives," he added.
Dr. Karen Fitzgerald PhD, an advanced registered nurse practitioner in the Department of Pediatrics, offered the assemblage perspective on the Jewish holiday, Hanukkah.
"Just as the light of creation drove away the darkness, so we pray that the lights we kindle as part of this holiday season chases away the darkness in our lives. And may they inspire us to be lights to the world, to bring hope and encouragement into the lives of those less fortunate than we," she said.
As the crowd sang holiday songs and enjoyed a visit by Santa, played by Lloyd Bostwick, an American Red Cross volunteer, Nailah said hello to Tierney as they each queued up for cookies.
Nailah has big plans to add to her holiday decorations. She made candy corn out of papier mache for Halloween, a turkey drawing for Thanksgiving and will add to the gingerbread house she and her family have already made for Christmas.
When Nailah and her family met with Bundt in his office just prior to the ceremony, he asked what she likes to do. Her answer was simple and appreciated.
"Spend time with my family," she said shyly.
Bundt smiled and told her family she has all the right answers.