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How One Woman Learned To Face Cancer From Her 3-Year-Old Hospital Roommate

Gabriel Spitzer
Nina Garkavi and Greta York shared a room at Seattle Children's Hospital where they learned to face cancer together.

Nina Garkavi was feeling rotten. She was throwing up. She’d barely slept the night before. And she hadn’t managed a poop without excruciating pain in weeks.

She was halfway through six months of in-patient chemotherapy when a nurse came into her hospital room and started prepping the empty bed opposite hers. The nurse informed her, matter-of-factly, that another patient would be joining her.

Nina was 22 years old and working at a fancy ad firm in Manhattan when a brain tumor forced this unscheduled vacation. Coping with the slow-motion agony of chemo, she was not exactly in the mood for company. Groggy and irritated, she asked the nurse about her new roommate. For one, how old was she?

The nurse flipped through the charts, and answered, “Um, three.”

Nina’s heart dropped.

“Oh my God,” she recalled saying to herself. “You’re telling me a 3-year-old is coming in the morning to check into this room? She’s going to cry all the time! I’m not going to get any sleep. A 3-year-old? Really?”

‘As If Someone Was Wringing Out A Towel In My Brain’

Nina Garkavi had totally embraced the life of a young New York professional. Her job was exciting and her boss a cool big-sister type. She worked hard. Come spring of 2011, she was ready for a vacation.

She had arranged a kind of working spring break. She got a job as a camp counselor in Miami at the toney Fontainebleau Hotel. She’d mind the rugrats by day, and spend evenings and weekends drinking cocktails and hitting the beaches.

But right after she arrived, she started getting headaches. They wouldn’t last long, but when they happened, they were blinding.  

“It was as if someone was wringing out a towel somewhere in my brain. I couldn’t really scratch it out or rub it out,” she said. “I wanted to kind of push on the pain, but I couldn’t find it.”

‘He Had To Say It A Few Times, Because I Was So Stunned’

Nina didn’t usually take medicine, and she rarely called in sick. But toward the end of her trip, her boss and her mother convinced her to see a doctor, just to get cleared to fly. Grudgingly, she took a cab to the emergency room at Mount Sinai Hospital.

After some initial tests and then a CT scan, she waited in an exam room. The chief of the ER came in and made small talk, and then he gave her the news: You have a mass in your brain.

“He had to say it a few times, because I was so stunned,” she recalled. “At this point I think the world stopped turning for a second.”

“I went down to Florida to go to the Fontainebleau on the beach to have a vacation from work, and I get diagnosed with a brain tumor at 22.”

‘Why Them?’: Living With Young Patients At Children’s Hospital

After two surgeries to cut the cancer out of her brain, Nina learned she had medulloblastoma desmoplastic. It was, bafflingly for Nina, a tumor most frequently seen in toddler-age boys. So she went to the best place in Seattle for treatment of a pediatric tumor.

“[I] went straight from Seattle airport to Children’s,” she said. “They wanted me to be seen by a pediatric specialist.”

After having been virtually the youngest patient at the Miami hospital, Seattle Children’s came as a bit of a shock.

“When I got to Children's Hospital, and I knew how I felt — I could barely walk and I had so much pain — when I saw little kids with tumors sticking out of their heads and necks, and attached to tubes, I couldn’t understand it,” she said.

She’d pass kids playing in the hallways on tricycles and slides, looking for all the world like any other child except for the parent trailing behind them, pushing their IV poles and wearing anguish on their faces.

“I couldn’t wrap my head around it. They’ve only been here for so long, little kids a couple of months old, a couple of years old. They haven’t done anything. Why them?” she said.

Unlikely Companions United By Cancer

In her room at Children’s, after a sleepless night of being roused for hourly blood draws, she heard a rustling sound early in the morning.

A curtain was drawn across the room so she couldn’t see her new roommate who had come in, who was getting settled on the bed and arranging things. Then she heard a small voice whisper: “Mommy, I want to watch ‘Snow White.”’

Right away, something broke in Nina.

“This little girl wants to watch “Snow White!” What is she doing at Children’s Hospital? She should be watching at home, on the couch,” she said.

After a few hours just listening, Nina emerged from behind the curtain to find 3-year-old Greta nestled on her hospital bed, surrounded by her mother and her menagerie of stuffed-animal cats. And Nina came to understand her connection to this unlikely companion.

“And I’m looking at her going, we’re in the same room, our lives couldn't be any more different at this moment. However, there's one thing that’s the same: We’re both going through cancer,” she said.

“If ‘Snow White’ is going to help you get through it, if the cats on your bed are going to help you, those cats are in my room, too, and they’re going to help me. We’re going to get through it together.”

‘I Could Be Really Sad … Or I Could Be Like Greta’

At Seattle Children’s, a knock at the door might be a visit from a doctor, or it could be Snack Cart Andy with Fruit Rollups and Gushers. It could be a nurse with a treasure chest of toys. If it’s Halloween, it might be your oncologist in a superhero costume.

The construction crews working on the hospital’s new wing would hide a life-size Where’s Waldo mannequin for kids to spot out their windows.

For Nina, it was a surreal but comforting place to go through the worst experience of her life. And her most powerful examples were the other patients.

“Seeing the kids, they don’t really accept or understand what’s happening to them and they can just be happy-go-lucky and pretend that nothing’s happening, and just move forward with what they have now, because they don’t know anything else,” she said.

Nina watched Greta get her shots and get used to her new prosthetic eyeball, after the eye swollen with tumor was removed. But she also saw Greta stubbornly lay claim to her childhood, riding bikes in the hall and cooing over Snow White.

“That mentality, I think, imprinted on me,” she said.

There were other young adult patients there, too, many of them sullen and scared, and angry. And Nina decided that how she coped with cancer was really up to her. Greta showed her that.

“Every day, it was an active thought. It wasn't like easy to me, [like], ‘Oh, I’m just going to be so positive, this is just so great!’ No, it wasn’t so great. There’s no way I can tell you it was so great,” she said.

“I could be really sad … or I could be like Greta who is surrounded by cats and she wants to watch ‘Snow White.’ I felt it was my choice.”

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.
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