Once a year, Oakland’s Kaiser Medical Center transforms into a scene out of a high school movie. For the teen patients being treated for chronic illness, hospital staff put on an event called the Pediatric Prom.
At Oakland’s Kaiser Medical Center, there’s a large conference room in the basement with a retractable wall in the middle. Most days, it doesn’t look like much—linoleum floors and high, flat ceilings. But one night a year, a giant disco ball hangs in the middle of the room, and those linoleum floors echo the laughter and chatter of about a hundred teens there for the Pediatric Prom.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as one in five kids and teens in the U.S. suffer from chronic illness. For many, this means they miss out on the biggest milestones of adolescence. Kaiser Permanente puts on this annual event to help treat the social effects of these teens’ illnesses.
The night of the event, the basement feels like a teenage dream—it’s basically a one-stop shop for everything a prom-goer could want. There are volunteer hairdressers and makeup artists, and racks of donated dresses.
First-time attendee Jade Lily got her dress from the hospital. It’s a two-piece, bright pink dress with a sequined top. “I don't usually wear pink, but someone saw it and said that they thought it would look good on me,” Jade says. “So I tried it on and I like immediately fell in love. And I've gotten so many compliments.”
Jade came to the prom this year with her friend Megan Elizabeth, who is wearing her hair in a bun with strands framing her face. Her navy-blue dress hits at her ankle, and her jewel-encrusted shoes match her diamond-detailed belt. The shoes are hers, but she got the dress from the donation racks. Before the dance, Megan, Jade, and all the other teens crowd into the basement to get ready. In one room, Michelle Austen watches her 17-year-old daughter Faith get her eyeshadow done.
Michelle is sitting on the floor with her back against the wall, and she is beaming. Her eyes are shining, and she never takes them off her daughter. She comes with Faith every year.
“It’s fun for her,” Austen says. “She loves it, so I want to see her enjoying it. It’s a blessing.”
Seventeen-year-old Megan sits down at a quiet table so she can give her feet a break. It’s her fourth year attending the event, now in its fifth year. She laughs and says she’s “basically been here the entire time.”
Megan suffers from two chronic illnesses. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis four years ago, which means she experiences ulcers and inflammation in her digestive tract. Over the course of her treatment, she developed another condition called Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She says her diagnoses have heavily affected her teenage years.
“I'm very exhausted a lot of time,” Megan says. “So like going to outings and events, stuff like that, I have to reserve my energy. And I miss out on a lot of school. So I don't really get to socialize that much.” The Mayo Clinic lists social isolation as one of the symptoms of Megan’s illness.
The CDC estimates that 3 million adults in the U.S. have ulcerative colitis. But it’s much harder to estimate how many kids and teens are suffering from the disease and any other chronic illness. Many young people don’t have the words to describe their symptoms, or they’re not taken seriously by health professionals. Megan says that even her friends didn’t seem to understand what she was going through, often downplaying her pain or suggesting she try different remedies.
“Whenever you try and talk to them about your disease, they kind of shut you down a lot,” Megan says. “And they kind of like make you feel small.”
She was on the verge of making the varsity cross country team when she became sick. She was forced to stop running, and she lost her connection with her teammates. She began feeling like an outcast at her school.
For Megan, the social problems weren’t the end. One medication she tried—a steroid—caused her to gain weight, among other physical side effects. She became unrecognizable to herself, and it destroyed her mental health.
“You just don't feel like yourself, you don't look like yourself,” Megan says, recalling her time on the medication. “And that depresses and makes you very anxious. So it drove me to the point I was very suicidal and I tried to kill myself…And they got me off of it after three months, but still like a month or two later, I was still dealing with the side effects of it because it was such a heavy medication on my body.”
But Megan didn’t have to go through it alone. She connected with Jade and other teens at a camp specifically for people with inflammatory bowel diseases, including Chron’s and ulcerative colitis.
“We already have that sense of connection, because we all kind of understand that we're all going through some type of problem in our lives that's continuous,” Megan says about her friends with IBD. “And you just kind of click together because of that.”
She says these kinds of bonds are hard to find.
“But like events like these, I feel like I'm at home, and I'm very comfortable being myself, and I'm very happy,” she says.
Many of the teens at the event have similar stories to Megan. But on the dance floor, they were just laughing and dancing and screaming along to a Katy Perry song. Their troubles take a backseat, and, at least for the night, they’re just teenagers, having fun.