Amelia Langston, M.D., is not only the medical director of the Bone Marrow Transplant Program at Winship Cancer Institute, but she does a mean Queen Elizabeth II impersonation. She's also an accomplished Olympian. In 1994, while working at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, she distinguished herself in events that included "Who can do the most laps around the ward in a 24-hour period?" and "Who can throw a bag of saline through a bedside commode?"
OK, so it wasn't the Olympics. "There was a group of us, and we just had this kooky idea that since they were having the real Olympics, it would be fun for staff and patients if we had our own hospital version," Langston says.
In 1998, Langston joined the staff at Winship, part of Emory University in Atlanta, and brought with her that same winning attitude. She quickly found colleagues who not only cared deeply for their patients, but wanted to instill a sense of joy and fun to help alleviate the inherent tension that comes with being in a cancer ward. Every two or three months, she and her staff have something cooking.
"We're very good at coming up with creative ways to make the best of a hard situation for patients and their families," she says. "Sometimes it will be prompted by somebody's saying, 'Hey, we need a fun weekend; what should we do?' And sometimes it'll be prompted by a slump in morale. Maybe we've lost a few patients."
During football season, they throw at least one tailgate party. "Everyone wears their team's jersey," Langston says.
"This year, we had a contest where patients decorated their doors with their team's logos. We made a bunch of trashy food — dips and chips and things — and everyone who was able came out and ate and drank and had a fun time."
In 2008, they hosted an Oncology Olympics on the transplant floor, inviting patients from two other cancer floors to liven up the competition. It was such a hit that they brought it back in summer 2012, hosting one contest every day for a week. Queen Elizabeth (who looked suspiciously like Langston in a blue dress and plastic tiara) showed up for the opening ceremony, pushed around the ward in a wheelchair by a convincing James Bond (a patient in sunglasses and a protective mask).
Langston came in dead last in a boisterous hula hoop competition and lost to the cancer center director in the staff wheelchair relay races. To keep the hallway from getting too jammed, they raced in heats and timed teams to declare the winners.
Other highlights included bedpan shuffleboard and "a contest where you squirted water from a syringe into a urinal and had to fill the urinal to a certain level to win," Langston says.
Some games were conducted with an eye toward infection control. For instance, the old "pass the apple with your neck" game was modified to "pass the balloon to your family member without letting it hit the ground."
Bob Falkenberg, a cancer survivor who spent considerable time at Winship in 2009 after he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, says that Langston and her colleagues show up for their patients in other ways, too. "The teamwork is incredible," he says. "When I was in the hospital, I saw several different doctors, and there was never any glitch in communication. It was seamless."
Falkenberg celebrated the first anniversary of his transplant by running with his medical team in the Winship Win the Fight 5K. At the finish line, they presented him with a birthday cake.
About six months later, Falkenberg and a friend embarked on a 1,700-mile bike ride, from Boston to Key West, raising money for Winship.
One weekend, Langston and three nurses drove out to Jacksonville with their bikes, joining the men for 200 miles. They even had a grand time getting hit by a near-monsoon and taking refuge at a fish camp, where they hung out in the owner's trailer for a few hours at the side of the road.
Langston says it was important for her to support her patient not just inside the hospital, but also after he eased back into his life. "For him, I think this was not just about fundraising for Winship, but also his recovery," Langston says. "It was a goal that he set for himself that had meaning in terms of his getting back to being himself."
Falkenberg figures Langston and her colleagues got a lot out of it, too. "This kind of thing is important for them," he says. "They deal with a lot of loss and a lot of difficult situations. To see someone doing as well as I was doing means a lot to them."