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MN Girl Granted Dying Wish To Help Sick Kids Worldwide

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- A young Minnesota girl's dying wish is now helping sick children across the world.

Priyanka Bhakta, 8, died from Acute Lymphoblast Leukemia in 2003, already knowing what legacy she would leave behind. She wanted a unique Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota program that brought her comfort, extended to help other sick children in India, where her family is from.

"As any mother can tell you she was the love of my life," said Leela Rao, Priyanka's mother. "She got diagnosed with leukemia at the age of four and a half."

Rao said the Child Life Services program at Children's made them realize the "C" that also comes with cancer is care. The child life specialists take the stress and trauma out of the hospital experience for children by using techniques, such as play, to create understanding.

"What does it mean to have an MRI? What does it mean to have stitches? And then we help children develop coping strategies getting through those experiences," said Jeanine Clapsaddle, one of the child life specialists who cared for Priyanka. "It was her wish to start a child life program in India because she realized those children didn't have the same care and support when she was a patient."

Leela Rao said after 26 months of treatment, Priyanka's doctors gave her clearance to take her first trip to India, the country where Rao was born and raised.

"We packed up suitcases full of toys, went to one of the poorest government run hospitals and said, I wonder what it must be like to have cancer elsewhere in the world?" said Rao.

And what they saw haunted both mother and daughter: Despondent faces and little reaction to the happiness they hoped to bring into the hospital. Rao said there were no resources to offer emotional support to the patients and their families, and no place for the children to be happy, play games, watch movies or play as they normally would.

"I spoke with the oncologist and said what is wrong, something is wrong?" said Rao, who soon realized children only get toys to distract them before a major procedure.

"We realized what was missing, they didn't have a spot place to land. They didn't have people welcoming them, to say don't worry, we are here to help you," said Rao. "I don't think sometimes you can fathom what it is like to keep a child in a room, and not let them go out in the summer and play? What wakes them up every morning? What is that power of hope you can give a child?"

Priyanka dreamed of owning her own business, so she opened up a jewelry boutique from her hospital room. She also dreamed of changing the hospital business for children less fortunate than her.

In the beginning of February, Clapsaddle will help fulfill that wish by traveling to the Manipal Hospital in Bangalore, India, to teach the child life specialty to other medical staff.

She'll travel on behalf of the Priyanka Foundation. Rao started the foundation for her daughter, on the premise of teaching medical staff around the world compassion, care and empathy for children.

Rao said the all-volunteer foundation has helped 1,200 children in India so far, and Clapsaddle will train staff to help thousands more. Clapsaddle called it the thrill of a lifetime.

"To think about the fact that this is a culmination of a child's vision is overwhelming, that a child would think of this in such detail," said Clapsaddle, who said her specialty may be standard in the U.S. but rare in other countries around the world, where it's unusual to even have a hospital dedicated to children.

She leaves Feb. 1 for two months of teaching at Manipal Hospital in Bangalore, where she'll focus on children with cancer and blood disorders.

To learn more about the Priyanka Foundation, and an upcoming fundraiser in February for children in need, click on the link below.

The Priyanka Foundation
Child Life Minnesota Children's Hospitals & Clinics


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