Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998

E D I T O R' S    N O T E

What Living is About

In this issue we are combining our Contributors section, normally found in a few paragraphs at the bottom of the page, with the Editor's Note. That's because I wanted to devote more space to sharing with you the story behind "Adding Life," the photo essay we've excerpted from photographer Harry Connolly's new book, Fighting Chance: Journeys Through Childhood Cancer (Woodholme House, 1998).

Fighting Chance is a powerfully moving book that I found impossible to put down, even after my second time through. Connolly spent three years chronicling the lives of three pediatric cancer patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital. There's 2-year-old Eli, from the Baltimore suburbs; 9-year-old Heather, who lives with her mom in the city; and 16-year-old Keith, whose family lives on a farm on Maryland's Eastern Shore. (He's the one featured in our pages and pictured at right.)

Connolly was there from the day these kids were diagnosed with the awful disease, through their long months--in some cases, years--of chemotherapy, and beyond. His images capture them with the significant people in their lives (their parents, siblings, classmates, Hopkins oncologists and nurses), both in the hospital and at home. They are images that sear the heart: little Eli, seconds after undergoing a spinal tap, clutching his mother's neck as tears squeeze out from beneath his tightly clenched eyes, his Curious George doll lying nearby; Heather, mugging with the nurses at her "end of chemo party"; Keith, a baseball hat covering his hairless head, staring out the window of his high school classroom. Accompanying the photos are little nuggets of conversation, poetic in their simplicity, that Connolly collected from doctors, parents, and the patients themselves. (Noted one RN, after a particularly harrowing day, "I'm having friends over for pizza and beer, but the pizza is looking less and less important.")

Connolly, who has a son Eli's age, says he's still surprised that all three families were willing to allow him to become such an intimate part of their lives--particularly at a time of such painful uncertainty. When he started the project, no one could predict how the kids' stories would turn out. As Connolly grew closer to them and to their families over the months, the thought of losing any one of the children became increasingly painful. He was there for their birthday parties, for family crab feasts, for trick-or-treating at Halloween, for school dances and T-ball games. "Dr. [Curt] Civin tried to warn me about where it might go," says Connolly, speaking of Hopkins's director of pediatric oncology, who gave his blessing to the project. "The endings of their stories are completely out of my control," Connolly adds.

That may be one reason the photographer had trouble selling the book to potential publishers. No one would touch it. Perhaps that's because they considered the subject "too depressing," guesses Connolly. (His first book, Heading Home, Growing Up in Baseball, published in 1995 by Rizzoli International, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning and in Life. For that project he spent six summers following Little League baseball players in East Baltimore.) Undeterred, Connolly moved ahead with his idea, armed with several hundred rolls of film donated by Kodak and equipment donated by Nikon.

Eli and Heather finished their treatments and follow-up first. Then it was Keith's turn to say goodbye to his Hopkins doctors and nurses. Six months later he was back for a crucial spinal tap; if the sample showed no cancer cells, his long-term prognosis would be good. Connolly shot photos of Keith undergoing the test, then went home to his dark room to await the results. That night, both Keith's mom and his doctor called the photographer with good news. Connolly told me that the episode was a turning point. "I realized that getting the book [published] was not as important as knowing that Keith's cancer had not come back."

Thankfully, Connolly did wind up finding a publisher (a new regional house run by two men with Hopkins connections), and his book has captured national attention, including a spot on The Today Show earlier this spring. Far from being "too depressing," Fighting Chance is a testament to hope; to the fact that kids with cancer, in their quest to pursue the normal activities of childhood, devote a lot more energy to living than they do to dying.

In April, we were thrilled to learn that Johns Hopkins Magazine has earned top honors in the annual recognition contest run by CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. The Magazine garnered a gold medal in the overall university magazine category, which drew 89 entries from universities all over the country. (Cornell Magazine also brought home a gold.) In addition, we earned a bronze medal in the staff writing category, and a bronze medal in Best Articles, for Dale Keiger's "What's Weird Here?", the profile of alumnus James Taylor and his strange fascination with carnival sideshow life.
Sue De Pasquale, Editor