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Monday, Apr 23, 2018
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Otto: Children’s Cancer Center made connection with teen patient

The first thing I thought about, other than it now has been 40 years, was Bobby Holton.

This Thursday, the Children’s Cancer Center on Cypress Street is hosting an appreciation event that will include an award for Dr. Janifer Judisch, co-founder of the center. She’s expected to attend.

It was back in 1982 when I got the call at my desk from Bobby Holton.

You have to understand that newspaper columnists don’t get too many calls from 16-year-old boys. More often it’s from someone on the back side of 60 chewing me out for not understanding the big picture or anything else.

Teens are most likely to read the sports page, if anything. But the caller was all business. He said he wanted to take me to breakfast and tell me about a special place.

We met at a chain restaurant on Busch Boulevard. He was sitting next to his bike when I showed up; a tousle-haired teenager who looked more like he ought to be delivering papers instead of reading them.

Bobby’s personal history was as bleak as they come. He had been passed from one broken home to another, and his father was in prison. That wasn’t the worst of it.

Bobby had leukemia, although he said it was in remission.

He wanted to tell me about the physical and emotional care he was getting out at USF, where Judisch had founded her Children’s Cancer Center. He insisted I go out there and write about it.

We finished breakfast, and he dashed up to the counter and pulled out a handful of one dollar bills he had stuffed in his pocket to pay for something he almost certainly couldn’t afford. I wasn’t about to question the pride and character of this remarkable man/boy.

A few days later, I called and went out to USF, where Judisch was chief of pediatric hematology/oncology.

The Children’s Cancer Center had come about in 1974, after Mac and Cecile Burnett lost their daughter to leukemia. They determined no child should have to face the struggles she underwent, and they teamed with Judisch to establish a program that would provide emotional as well as financial support for children and families fighting deadly blood diseases.

The first vision I had of the doctor was a small woman in a white coat moving back and forth from cubicle to cubicle at USF. She was like a general conducting battlefront operations in a war against the ravages of leukemia, where the odds still were in favor of the disease.

I saw her again a couple of weeks later at one of her picnics for the children at the center, tooling across an open field in the blue Mustang convertible in which she had come to Florida a few years earlier. The car was packed with kids.

I wrote a column about Judisch and the center and how they were beginning to turn the corner on saving lives.

A few weeks after that, I got the news Bobby Holton had died.

I can still see the images of a 16-year-old teen who had gone through so much and yet wanted people to know about a special place where he had found not only compassion and care but a family that was with him until he died.

Through the years the battle against those diseases continues, although the odds have turned in our favor. The Children’s Cancer Center has broadened its horizons as well. It has its own free-standing building at 4901 Cypress St. and now serves at a number of hospitals. Hopefully one day not too far into the future we can put them out of business.

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