A week after undergoing surgery for a bowel obstruction, 17-year-old Briannah Cotton performed Adele’s version of Make You Feel My Love and Etta James’s At Last in front of a crowd of smiling teenagers at their prom.
The performance was part of The Hospital for Sick Children’s annual prom-inspired party on Friday. A secluded part of the hospital was transformed into an Arabian Nights theme, and dozens of teenagers took to the dance floor, goofed around at the photo booth and danced with a number of Toronto FC players who made an appearance, including defenders Mark Bloom and Nick Hagglund.
Ms. Cotton was born with her small intestine outside of her body – a condition that forced her to have surgery hours after her birth and brings her back to the hospital twice a year for follow-up appointments. But she has not let her illness get in the way of pursuing her passion for music, and believes that events such as these help teenagers to cope with their realities.
“There's all of these teens and these kids that are going through tough times right now and I really believe that this is a really awesome idea because it allows us to have fun when they're really having a tough time,” said Ms. Cotton, who began singing professionally when she was eight years old.
Now in its sixth year, the event, which is open to both inpatients and outpatients between the ages of 13 and 18, aims to promote a positive hospital experience.
"We got to talking in our department about … [how to] to support kids in reaching milestones and how hard that is when you're sick in the hospital or you have illnesses that are long-term or chronic that impact you being able to do things that everyone else can do," said Alexis Shinewald, a child life specialist at SickKids hospital who co-founded the prom.
There’s “so much you don’t see on the outside that is happening on the inside” with these teenagers, Ms. Shinewald said, and between clinic appointments and regular hospitalization, a number of their normal life experiences are never achieved.
"As an adult you remember your prom and your date and what you wore, so to be able to bring that here is so incredible,” said Ms. Shinewald. “They don't feel like they are in a hospital – they feel normal, special and beautiful and that's exactly what they are.”
For Kayla Johnston, participating in this year's prom offers her a second chance to take part in the teenage milestone and see it through to the end. A patient at SickKids hospital since 2012, Ms. Johnston, 18, suffers from both a connective tissue and rare gastric disorder that caused her to feel sick during her high school prom.
Considering that her prom night was cut short and that she missed her after-prom party, Ms. Johnston says that "this is making up for it."
"I look forward to these dances that they put on," said Ms. Johnston, who also participated in the event last year. "It's a great way to just hangout with a bunch of other kids who are going through the same thing and just relax and not worry about anything for once and have fun."
Unlike Ms. Johnston, Danielle Maxwell had never been to a prom. The 17-year-old Kingston native suffers from a rare skin condition that causes small cysts to form all over her body. Due to the number of doctor’s appointments, treatments as well as the painful symptoms of her condition, she is now homeschooled.
For her, participating in the event presented an opportunity to experience a milestone that she wouldn't otherwise have been able to.
“It means a lot to me because I don't get to do this at home,” said Ms. Maxwell, who took a four-hour bus ride with her boyfriend and mother from Kingston to attend the event. “I get to go to [my boyfriend's] prom next year, but I don't get to go to my own.”
As for Ms. Cotton, she plans on continuing to follow her passion and not let her illness get in the way of pursing music professionally.
“It’s what I love to do and even though I'm sick I shouldn't stop what I love to do," said Ms. Cotton. "It's really important to just keep going and do your normal thing, because really, if you're just being sick what else do you have?”