Three-year-old Landon Morrill is perhaps too young to understand the power of positive thinking. But to see the joy in his smile and the bounce in his step, you would never think that he recently underwent a wrenching bone-marrow transplant - after his parents were told he had a 1-in-10 chance of surviving treatment for his leukemia.
"Can you do Happy Feet?" his mother, Colleen, asked, referring to the animated film with dancing penguins. Landon then frolicked as he tapped his tiny feet on the floor, occasionally hamming it up for all who watched with delight.
Landon's father, Terry, called his recovery "a miracle." He and his wife also believe that their surroundings - the Believe In Tomorrow House at St. Casimir, where they stayed during Landon's treatment - assisted in the process as well.
The couple from Hughesville in Southern Maryland echoed what many doctors and experts in environmental health have asserted for years: Creating a comfortable, homelike atmosphere for patients and their families helps the healing process for patients. That's the aim of the Believe In Tomorrow Children's Foundation, which serves critically ill children and their families.
The Baltimore-based nonprofit group has several housing facilities, including two near Johns Hopkins Hospital and several retreats near the Maryland-Delaware seashore and Western Maryland mountains. It is constructing its second of two resort houses that give priority to critically ill children of military families.
Since its inception 25 years ago, the organization has provided more than 300,000 individual overnight accommodations to critically ill children and their families from every U.S. state and more than 76 countries.
Believe In Tomorrow properties are similar to such hospital housing residences as the Ronald McDonald House as well as those at Mayo Clinic facilities. The two-year-old St. Casimir facility in Canton is, however, among the first of its kind designed to serve pediatric bone-marrow transplant patients. Formerly a convent, the St. Casimir building has the look of an upscale condominium, with eight apartments, several common areas, an enclosed garden courtyard and a rooftop deck.
"Those patients have a particularly difficult road to go down through the health care system," said Brian Morrison, founder of the Believe In Tomorrow Children's Foundation.
"They're at the hospital for a very long time after the procedure, up to 120 days," he said. "It's required that they stay within a 15-minute zone of the hospital. Here, we have two- to three-bedroom apartments where families can really retain a sense of normalcy."
Families are asked to give a nominal contribution toward their stay at Believe In Tomorrow's facilities, but there are no questions asked if they cannot contribute, the group said.
"The families we deal with have so many stresses on them," Morrison said. "If in staying in our facilities they can be renewed mentally, physically and perhaps spiritually, then we're hitting a high mark."
The facilities are supported with individual and corporate donations. Companies also donate construction materials, land, furniture and other services. The adjacent Father Kolbe School, a parochial elementary and middle school, allows siblings of patients to attend for free and provides uniforms. A local artist, Kevin Gugliotta, donated maritime paintings to decorate the St. Casimir facility.
Often, families of patients who receive treatment become involved with the organization.
"I got involved with Believe In Tomorrow 10 years ago when my nephew George had leukemia," said board member Dave Pruitt, vice president of training, recruiting and sales for Towson-based Black & Decker Corp.
"He's now a junior in high school and doing well," Pruitt said. "We often go down to the Children's House [at Hopkins] and try to give back where we can. They do a lot of great things for families."
The facility is popular with doctors who want parents of critically ill patients to stay nearby.
"I've always felt that if you require that of them, you have an obligation to help them," said Dr. Robert J. Arceci, professor for oncology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins' Sydney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.
"It's hard to discriminate between what role psychology plays in all of this," Arceci said. "But it has been my feeling that if you go in with a positive attitude, you tend to tolerate more and make it out."
Larry McAndrews, president of the National Association of Children's Hospitals, says that young patients readily pick up behavior changes and mood swings in parents.
"I know that having the child close to the parents so they can support the child eases stress and improves the healing process," he said.
The Morrills turned to doctors at Johns Hopkins after their first doctor advised that there was little that could be done for Landon.
"The first opinion we got is that we should just take him home and make him comfortable," Terry Morrill said. "They said the treatments he would have to undergo would be too tough for him, and they really didn't think he should go through it."
Landon, who was born with Down syndrome, received bone marrow via cord blood from the National Cord Blood Bank. Cord blood, which comes from the placenta and umbilical cord after birth, contains stem cells similar to that found in bone marrow and can be used in transplantation in place of bone marrow. A recent test showed that most of the donor cells were active in Landon, a good sign, his father said.
"We continue to focus on the positive for Landon, and that's healthy for him," Colleen Morrill said.
They shudder to think what frame of mind they would be in if they had to choose housing on their own. With that taken care of, they focus mainly on their son's health and this weekend, when Landon is expected to return home.
Believe In Tomorrow timeline
Initially known as the Grant-A-Wish Foundation, the organization begins as a volunteer effort to help critically ill children while they undergo treatment at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center and University of Maryland hospitals in Baltimore.
The foundation creates one of the first pediatric respite housing programs in the United States for children with life-threatening illnesses. A rented oceanfront condominium in Ocean City is made available to families for free throughout their children's illnesses.
Believe In Tomorrow Children's House opens near Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Believe In Tomorrow House at St. Casimir in Canton is designed as one of the first facilities to focus on long-term housing needs of pediatric bone-marrow transplant patients and their families.
Construction begins on Believe In Tomorrow House at Pinnacle Falls near Hendersonville, N.C. The foundation also acquires a bayside townhouse in Ocean City. The facilities will give priority to military families with sick children.
Spirit of Sharing
The Spirit of Sharing Holiday Campaign, administered by Baltimore Sun Charities, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation, raises money to help needy families in the Baltimore area during the holidays. The campaign runs through January. The McCormick Tribune Foundation matches donations at 50 cents on the dollar. In addition, all administrative costs are covered by The Sun and the McCormick Tribune Foundation, so all money raised, plus the match, will be granted locally to those in need. All donations are tax-deductible. Contributions may be made online at baltimoresun.com/spiritofsharing, by calling 888-683-4483 or by sending a check to Baltimore Sun Holiday Campaign, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278-0001.
The agencies featured in the Spirit of Sharing articles are not necessarily past or future grantees of the Baltimore Sun Charities' Spirit of Sharing campaign.