Lifting spirits

Officers become superheroes to entertain young hospital patients

Edinburg Police Sgt. Christopher Blandford traded in his police gear for a spandex Spider-Man suit Tuesday, joining fellow SWAT members at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance for Project Superhero, an annual event coordinated between the department and the hospital which brings children suffering from cancer and other illnesses together with police officers posing as comic book heroes.

In his Spider-Man suit, Blandford was lifted to the fourth floor window outside the pediatric ward playroom in a fire engine bucket, waving to the children within. Admittedly, he couldn’t tell whether anyone waved back because he couldn’t see through the costume’s mask.

Blandford was lowered to the ground, and a few minutes later he leapt into the playroom with the other superheroes. He says the kids sounded like they were having fun.

“They seemed pretty happy, cheerful,” he said. “I know the hospital’s not always fun, and they’re just sitting in here. This just kind of breaks the monotony, gives them something to lift up their spirits.”

Parents took pictures of their children with Blandford and the other superheroes, and everyone was offered a slice of pizza. Kids started playing with the toys and blocks scattered around the room, occasionally being joined by Superman or Thor or another of the half-dozen heroes in the room.

Edith Castillo, a certified child life specialist at the hospital, says Project Superhero provides a valuable experience to children who are sometimes confined in the hospital for weeks at a time for treatment.

“They will jump at the chance to go if they’re not too sick to get out of the room,” she said. “We have some kids who are here for a week, two weeks, and they’re just in their room every single day. We do have the playroom and we do have activities, but an event like this just kind of pushes them to leave their room.”

For children who spend all their time in the hospital, something as simple as a pizza party with a few costumed characters can make a big difference, Castillo says.

“This helps us provide normalization to the kids,” she said. “For one, we’re bringing a party to the hospital, just making the hospital experience fun. It makes their day so much better versus just sitting around in their room, they have somewhere to go socialize with people and play with toys and have at least one fun event while they’re here.”

Edinburg Police Chief Cesar Torres says he and his officers were happy to be brightening the childrens’ day.

“All the kids are going through some type of illness and we want to bring our characters out here so they can see Batman and Spider-Man and Captain America,” he said. “It puts a smile on their faces, so we’re honored and blessed to be here spending the afternoon with them.”

Torres says Project Superhero is also a valuable opportunity to build a good relationship with the people his department serves.

“We’re human, too, and we don’t want them to be afraid of us,” he said. “We want them to know that we’re their friends, and this helps build trust for the future. We see officers protecting all day long, writing tickets or arresting offenders, but this is part of serving our community, too.”

Project Superhero was held for the first time a year ago. Torres says he hopes to put on an event like it with the hospital more frequently.

“I just talked to DHR and suggested that maybe every six months, maybe every three months, we could come out here for an hour or two and spend time with the kids,” he said.

One of the children attending Project Superhero was Christopher Rangel, a 10-year-old from Santa Rosa suffering from leukemia. Rangel was in the hospital Tuesday for a lumbar puncture, a procedure in which a needle is inserted into the spinal canal to collect fluid for testing.

Last week, Rangel spent five days in the hospital undergoing chemo. Rangel’s father, Jake Garcia, says the family has suffered through a string of medical challenges: one of Rangel’s siblings has been diagnosed with autism, and another suffers from a blood disorder.

“It’s been stressful,” Garcia said.

After the party, Rangel and his family bumped into Torres and Blandford at the elevator. Blandford had changed out of his Spider-Man suit and could finally see again. Torres knelt down with Rangel, asking him about the superheroes he’d seen that day. Rangel was tired, and he didn’t joke back.

Rangel’s mother, holding a slice of pizza on a paper plate, noticed the napkin she’d been using to cover the it had fallen off somewhere on the walk to the elevator. Before she could say another word, Blandford bounded off, coming back in a moment with a folded paper towel. He was clearly happy to be providing one more little kindness to a family that needed it the most.