From the moment she enters
the Hematology/Oncology Clinic at Cook Children’s Medical Center, Arlington’s Janice Osborne is bubbly – in more ways than one.
Figuratively, there’s that effervescent personality, sunny smile and a contagiously positive outlook anchored firmly in faith.
Literally, there are … well … bubbles – cascades of shiny soap bubbles greeting the young patients as they arrive for chemotherapy treatments. Their fascination transcends gender and generation. An infant’s mouth and nose are covered by a surgical mask, but her eyes widen in wonder as she reaches out. A 13-year-old boy reacts differently, seeing how many bubbles he can karate-chop to oblivion before they hit the floor.
“My job is to be their friend. I’m their buddy. They treat me like one of them. I sing corny songs. I played Frosty the Snowman over Christmas, and we made jingle bell bracelets. I like to make them feel real special, because they are. I don’t notice that some are bald and have no eyebrows.”
A special toolkit…
Bubbles are not the only tool she brings. There are things to color on, things to color with, glitter to enhance the artwork, cards for a game of Go Fish and – with parental permission – heart-shaped lollipops and chocolate mint chewing gum.
Not only does Osborne replenish her supply at craft stores – her house has become a drop-off point for friends and neighbors who know she can put old storybooks and outgrown toys to good use.
The knickknacks are there to lighten the mood of patients and parents, but the most effective smile magnet, co-workers agree, is Osborne herself. Her supervisor, Child Life Specialist Kate Murphy, calls her “very warm, charismatic and a genuine ray of energy,” adding that she “glows with positivity.”
Fellow volunteer Leslie Enlow agrees. “I’ve been here a long time and worked with a lot of people,” she said, “but I’ve never seen anyone like Janice. She’s so good at getting the children to react to her.”
Osborne is one of about 1,100 people who volunteer each year at Cook Children’s, putting in more than 100,000 hours. “They provide comfort, emotional support, companionship,” said Marie Howell, volunteer services manager, but need to be able “to cope with the harsh realities of a pediatric medical setting.”
Most patients get well and go home, she added, “but when a death occurs, it is always hard and never gets easier, nor should it.”
Not every volunteer duty is life and death. There are more than 150 placements, and there are opportunities for kids as young as 10. More information on the program and a volunteer application is found at cookchildrens.org/Giving/Volunteer/Pages/default.aspx.
Osborne said her work is highly rewarding, but can be physically taxing – “not so easy to get up and down as it once was” – and emotionally stressful. She needs inner strength prior to each shift and knows where to seek it. “I pray before I get there,” she said. “I’m always praying on the way in, saying, ‘Don’t let me waste your time, Lord.’ But as soon as I get there, I have never, ever been disappointed in the way things go. When I’m there, I’m fine, but I can say that I’ve cried on the way home because you end up loving these kids.”
Deep Arlington roots…
If it’s her nature to be nice to people, it’s also a result of nurture. She grew up Janice McClellan, living with parents and four siblings on Norwood Lane. To lessen the inevitable squabbling, “my mom and dad kind of encouraged us to get along as well as well as we could. My dad was really huge on always being nice, nice, nice.”
She attended Ousley Junior High when it was still on the corner of Cooper and Abram and moved on to Arlington High, where she met future husband Walter Osborne. Janice and Walt were the couple of the Class of ’65. She was homecoming queen; he, a star football player. She was named Miss AHS, and he was Mr. AHS.
Walt went to Rice University on a football scholarship, but injuries caused him to give up football, and he returned to Arlington and UTA. After three semesters of college, Janice became a flight attendant for Braniff but was airborne only one year. When Walt proposed and they were married, Janice was grounded by the policy that banned married women from flying.
Walt used a degree in physics to land a job doing radiation research, and the family settled into routine until a co-worker asked if he’d ever thought about being a doctor. He hadn’t, but the idea took root. He took some pre-med courses in the evenings, and eventually he, Janice and son Andy relocated to Galveston and medical school. Money was tight, and Janice chipped in by doing some modeling for a small advertising agency. That lasted until Walt’s final year when daughter Erin was born.
The Osbornes eventually made their way
back to Arlington. Walt began his career as an emergency room physician, and Janice put her modeling experience to work, teaching at Bauder Fashion College, eventually becoming Modeling Department chair.
Their volunteering began when their children were in school. Already active at Pantego Bible Church, they worked in the youth ministry, driving groups to Tuesday morning prayer breakfasts at Grandy’s and then on to school.
Eventually, Janice decided that the kids should experience the rewards of volunteering. Andy needed some persuading. She signed him up, despite protestations, to work at Youth Against Dystrophy camp. “He really didn’t want to go at all,” she said, “but when I went to pick him up afterward, he got off the bus carrying a child and putting him in a wheelchair. When he got in the car he said, ‘That’s the best thing that ever happened to me.'”
Erin and Janice, meanwhile, had worked occasionally at the Ronald McDonald House in Fort Worth, but Erin wanted something more. She wound up a junior volunteer at Cook Children’s and one day asked her mother, “If I’m doing this, why aren’t you?”
Good question, Janice thought, and shortly thereafter began in the H/O clinic. She enjoyed the work, but had to give it up after a few months when her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Ironically, it was another diagnosis – that of Walt’s Parkinson’s disease about six years ago – that got her back. He continued to work, but she grew restless. “I felt like I had to get out of the house and do something productive,” she said.
“Something” turned out to be a return to the clinic. She walked into the large waiting room and knew she’d found her calling. “There were tricycles, Hot Wheels cars, Barbie dolls, coloring books,” she said. It was OK, she was told, to get down on the floor and play with the young patients. “I kind of treated them like my grandchildren. It was like I belonged there.”
Walt’s illness has given Janice fresh insight into her patients’ experiences. “They had a normal life, and then one day get that diagnosis,” she said. “I think that’s what gets me the most.”
Janice wasn’t a cheerleader in high school, but now has “learned to be a one on both ends – with him (Walt) and the kids. There’s a verse in the Bible – Luke 18:1 – that says to pray and don’t give up. God gave me that verse, and I feel that’s what I need to do.”
She prays for her young friends at the clinic, but not to them. “I have to be very careful because some are not Christian,” she said, “and I’m fine with that.”
Now in her sixth year as a volunteer, she has no timetable, taking things a day or week at a time. “If I weren’t there, I know God would send someone else,” she said. “They really don’t need me, but I sort of need them.”