Janiah Smith was devastated to miss her senior prom last school year. A last-minute flare-up of her sickle cell anemia left her too ill and suffering from pain and fatigue so she had to cancel. Last weekend, however, she got a second chance to celebrate her teenage milestone at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland’s annual prom, hosted by staff and volunteers.

Though she had been admitted to the hospital the previous week for complications from sickle cell, Smith was radiant in a champagne lamé dress and a blonde Marilyn Monroe wig, both donated by local nonprofits.

“I love to get dolled up, and this is such a great distraction from when you’re in pain,” said Smith, age 20, as a volunteer swabbed glittery shadow on her eyelids. “When you look better, you feel better, right?”

On the other side of the Bay at Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco, Emmie Arnold and her best friend Charlotte, both 15, primped in Emmie’s room and riffed on the prom theme, “A Yule Ball Celebration,” inspired by Harry Potter and the Goblet of the Fire.

“I’m usually a Hufflepuff, but am feeling a little Slytherin today,” Emmie said slyly. “I wonder if the caricature artist could draw my face on an owl?”

The San Francisco prom, the hospital’s 14th annual event for patients and former patients ages 15 to 20 years old, was held simultaneously with the Oakland event, the hospital’s seventh annual.

I haven’t seen her smile like this in days.”

Parent of patient

Volunteers transformed an auditorium and cafeteria into wintery wonderlands of levitating candles, twinkling lights, white tree branches and snowflakes projected on the walls. Magicians roamed the rooms performing tricks, while caricature artists drew sketches and photo booths snapped images to commemorate the night. In Oakland, an ice sculpture of Hedwig the owl surveyed the festivities from its perch in front of the room.

Themed food and swag were on offer at both hospitals as well, much of it donated. Guests received a hoodie with a prom logo, raffle prizes and gift bags stuffed with iPhone accessories, Nintendo games, Harry Potter socks, chocolate frogs and Butterbeer lip balm. Nibbles included Cauldron Cakes, Mandrake Berries and Huffle Puffs.

“For these adolescents, who often miss out on these important rites of passage because of their illness, being able to do something normal and fun, in spite of their medical conditions, is so important for their health and wellbeing,” said Rechelle Porter, director of Child Life Services at Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.

Two teenage girls wearing red prom dresses smile as they enter the prom event at U C S F Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland.
Photo by Raymond Ibale

Village of volunteers

Local community organizations and volunteers chipped in on both sides of the Bay to ensure the teens had a proper prom experience. The Princess Project donated prom dresses that patients could “shop” beforehand and keep after prom was done, while the pros at Stylebee donated their time providing makeup and styling hair in Oakland.

At Benioff Children’s San Francisco, volunteer photographer Jeff Cable, whose daughter was once a patient, took prom photos for free at the event, and sent them later to families. Ali Lee, a licensed cosmetologist and barber in Walnut Creek, did hair and makeup in the Teen Lounge.

Parents and caregivers received gift cards to Arthur Mac’s in Oakland and SPARK Social in San Francisco, so they too could relax while the kids danced and chatted the night away. The biggest gift, though, was seeing their kids have fun.

A colorful assortment of prom dresses on racks.
Shopping for a prom dress is a unique experience. Patients were able to shop for their gowns free-of-charge before the event and keep them afterwards. Photo by Jess Berthold

“I haven’t seen her smile like this in days,” said Shelly Sheppard of her 17-year-old daughter, Caitlin Larsen, who had been admitted to the Oakland hospital the day before.

This year’s prom theme and other details were planned by the Youth Advisory Council, which comprises about 30 current and former patients ages 14-22 from both children’s hospitals, as well as two child life specialists. While the council handles many tasks throughout the year, from educating residents on the teen hospital experience to providing input on new safety programs, prom is a favorite.

“The council members decided the theme and the decor, designed the invitations, made suggestions on the music and swag and called the raffle winners, as well as provided feedback afterward on how it went,” said Rose Tandeta, a child life specialist who co-founded the council in 2013.

All told, about 200 current and recent patients and their guests attended the event on both sides of the Bay, some with IV poles in tow, others in wheelchairs. Medical staff stood unobtrusively in the corners; they knew the point was to forget, for a night, about illness, hospitals and hardship.

“At this event, they’re no longer ‘that liver patient in room 5’,” said Michael Towne, manager of Child Life Services at Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco. “They’re a teen, enjoying their prom.”

Teens dance happily at the U C S F Benioff Children's Hospital Oakland's prom event.
Photo by Raymond Ibale