Comfort wagon: A local woman eases the pain caused by her granddaughter's death by delivering wagon-loads of gifts to ill children - The Explorer: Import

Comfort wagon: A local woman eases the pain caused by her granddaughter's death by delivering wagon-loads of gifts to ill children

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Posted: Thursday, January 12, 2006 12:00 am | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Jan. 11, 2006 - Savannah Elaine Vail loved her wagon.

She'd sit in it like a princess and point her tiny finger straight ahead, and invariably an indulgent adult would appear to pull her wherever she wanted to go. As soon as that adult's patience with walking in circles ran out, the child would lift her finger again sweetly, and another admiring adult would start to pull.

Savannah died of cancer at age 2 in 1999, and the family members she left behind all found ways of pulling themselves out of grief and plodding on without her.

One of them used a wagon.

Oro Valley resident Elaine Draves has spent the past six years dragging wagons ladened with toys through the hallways of University Medical Center to bring joy to sick children. She passes out $1,000 worth of toys each month, which she sees as her granddaughter's legacy. She calls the project Savannah's Wagon.

"My thing was, I couldn't wrap my brain around babies suffering and dying, and there had to be something positive that came from it," Draves said. "Without that, I wasn't going to be at peace from it."

Draves' granddaughter was diagnosed with inoperable brainstem cancer in 1997, one week before her first birthday. Her parents had turned to the doctor because the child kept throwing up. Before then, she had hardly ever gotten sick.

As Savannah's parents gaped at the diagnosis, Draves called her boss to report the news. Just as in a scene from The Godfather, Part III when a man's daughter is shot and he throws his head back to scream but no sound comes out, Elaine couldn't find her voice.

An emergency surgery that night removed 90 percent of Savannah's tumor, but for her safety, the cancerous sheet on her delicate brainstem had to stay.

For a year, Savannah's family watched over her intently in the hospital and out. They bent over her for hours on end willing her to get better, willing a positive outcome.

"We lived and breathed, 'How is Savannah?'" Draves said.

Just after the child's second birthday, she had a second surgery to remove tumor bulk. When she woke up from that one, she couldn't walk or talk, but she could point, and her prize wagon kept her moving.

"Oh my gosh. I'm surprised we didn't wear the tread out of it," Draves said. "We would make a little pillow nest, she would point and point, as long as she would point, we would go."

The toddler's energy dwindled, though, that year, and within seven months of the surgery, she died. Draves did what she could to help her grieving daughter, Savannah's mother, but her own depression often left her curled lifelessly in bed.

"I just couldn't get up and get going," she said. "I just couldn't do it. Mentally and emotionally I was shot."

A year passed, and Draves still couldn't wrap her mind around Savannah's death. When an adult dies, you have decades of memories to reflect on, even if death arrived too soon. With a toddler, it's all dreams - so much energy invested in unrealized hopes and visions that began even before the child was born.

"You create this fantasy about what the child can be, and then, boom, the fantasy is gone," Draves said. "There has to be this future reality. It can't end like this. It's not supposed to."

One day, about a year after Savannah's death, Draves found a little piece of future to grab onto. It didn't happen dramatically in a burst of inspiration, but it happened, and life slowly got better.

"You know how your mind can be all over the place, and then it just comes together," Draves said, explaining that moment.

Although Graves knew Savannah would never step onto a school bus for kindergarten or toss a cap in the air for graduation or look someone in the eyes and say, "I do," perhaps a new dream with Savannah's name on it could be realized through the wagon.

It's not as if Savannah hadn't already nudged the world. She'd taught people, for example, what it's like to love a toddler and lose her. Draves had emerged from the loss with a deep empathy for others who are faced with loving and losing children. She had found herself loving people she didn't even know.

"When you've experienced it and had to go through it, it has to take you through a lot of places," she said. "Where it took me is to a person I really like."

Draves imagined bringing happy moments to hurting families by way of wagons ladened with gifts. For the children she could buy toys, and for the parents, she could offer creature comforts - massages, perhaps, and scented pillows.

"They need someone coming in other than another medication and bad report," she said.

In January of 2001, Graves made her first wagon run to University Medical Center in the pediatric cancer ward where Savannah spent long days and nights. Finding her gifts well-received, she kept going back. Other family members often handed out gifts, as well.

Occasionally, Graves would talk to grieving people during her rounds, such as one young mother who crumbled into her arms sobbing and received the gentle assurance that one day she would smile again. Usually, though, Draves just offered families a break in the worry cycle or a bit of hope.

"If I'm getting a toy, there's a hope that I'm going to get to play with this in the future," Draves said. "Certainly I think that's the feeling I would have gotten."

Over time, Savannah's Wagon began attracting volunteers. Monetary gifts and toys also began rolling in. Draves expanded the gift giving to more pediatric areas of the University Medical Center and kept handing out gifts until the wagons emptied or until she and her family members felt too emotionally drained.

"It's very bittersweet," she said. "We remember being there. We remember the pain. We still remember."

Today, Savannah's Wagon bolsters the spirits of 40-some children twice a month. In December, the gift-giving crew started going to the pediatric intensive care unit for the first time, where their efforts are appreciated, said Andreas Theodorou, the hospital's chief of pediatric critical care.

"People are afraid to come into ICU because of the high-tech medicine," he said. "People who work here recognize the value of them coming in."

Cicely d'Autremont, a social worker at the hospital, also spoke of the benefits of a wagon of toys to children who are stuck in a sterile environment.

"They're really in a time warp in these rooms," she said. "Anything like this that comes in for them is special out of proportion."

Draves said the exercise of brightening the faces of seriously ill children has done more to heal her brokenness than depression medications and counseling could do. It's given her happy memories within the walls of a hospital - some that make her cry.

Her favorite is this: One day Draves met a young boy in a hospital bed who loved Batman. Between his legs, he had a plastic bucket with every size and shape of Batman toy that Draves could imagine. Nothing in her wagon sparked his interest.

Draves didn't think she could find a Batman toy he didn't have, but she bought a dazzling Batmobile and returned to the hospital. The boy went ballistic over it. He loved it. Two weeks later, Draves discovered him sleeping with the plastic toy under his arm.

"He was dealing with so many issues, and that stupid Batmobile meant so much to him that he was cuddling it," she said.

Draves is looking for volunteer massage therapists who can provide temporary relaxation to patients' family members who she meets on her rounds. She is also looking toward a bigger future for Savannah's Wagon with more volunteers, more donations, and more hospitals to deliver gifts to.

"I think there are an awful lot of kids that would benefit from what we do, and a lot of volunteers could be kept busy for a very long time," she said.

Eight years ago, when Draves was busy pulling her princess granddaughter wherever her little finger could point, she couldn't have known that the wagon would be just the tool, one day, for pulling herself out of grief.

But these days, Savannah's wagon is dedicated to a different kind of load.

"It's not just about healing my broken heart, anymore," she said.

Laura Marble writes feature stories and can be reached at 797-4384, ext. 104, or lmarble@explorernews.com.

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