In 2011, I began volunteering at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital. In my (almost) full year of time there, the experiences I had and people I met helped me grow and learn tremendously. This is one story of my time with a little girl that I will never forget. 

I started off like most other day’s at the hospital. I had my list of rooms to visit in my pocket. I was given the PICU (Pediatric Intensive Care Unit) patients. The PICU is not the most friendly-looking of places. Though most of the children’s hospital is decorated in bright colors and painted walls, the PICU’s walls are white and vacant. Its blank canvas stretches throughout the unit floor desperate for adornment. The rooms are transparent with glass doors and walls. Again, this is unlike the rest of the children’s hospital.

I entered— let’s call her— “Anabell’s” room. Aside from Anabell on her hospital bed, the room is empty of people. No doctors, family, or friends in sight.

“Hi Anabell, my name is Mandy and I’m a volunteer from the Chase Child Life Center. Is it ok if I hang out with you today?”

No answer.

Of course she was not going to answer. Tubes are coming out of every part of her body. Every tube laces up to a beeping machine. I wouldn’t respond to me either. I’m forgetting, she is also only two years old. Her nurse walks in.

“She can’t respond to you but if you ask her questions she will squeeze your hand to say yes.”  I held her hand. Her entire hand spread open was smaller than the size of my palm… Keep it together Mandy. 

I didn’t know what her condition was, they didn’t always disclose that information. I grabbed the coloring book and crayons by the side of her bed.

“Which color should I use for the bear? Yellow?”

No squeeze.


No squeeze. Maybe she’s confused on the squeezing thing.


Gentle squeeze…so gentle, I almost missed it. Ah, we have a winner!

I colored for her, talked to her, told her how much I loved the clipped bow in her hair. I noticed hand squeezing was exhausting her, so I put on a Disney movie for us to watch together.

My eyes keep noticing a clear plastic contraption sitting on top of her chest, partially hidden underneath the covers. It is moving up and down and connected to a bunch of tubes with her blood flowing through it. Dialysis? Maybe it cleans out her blood? I thought to myself. The nurse walks in. I ask her about it.

“That’s her heart. Anabell had a bad heart so we removed it. This machine is keeping her alive until she gets a donor.”

My face turned pale. Keep it together Mandy.

There are many patients I connected to as a volunteer, but she was one of the hardest to leave at the end of the day. A two-year-old girl, in critical condition, was by herself in a hospital waiting to see if she gets to have another day of life. Her tearless, concentrated, eyes displayed a courage that didn’t require words to show.

Earlier that day, I was thinking about how unhappy I was with my bank account, how annoyed I was at traffic, how it was time to update my closet, and the list of endless things I needed to do that never seem to get done. By the end of that day, I was reminded by a toddler how incredibly self-absorbed, materialistic, and selfish I was being. I thought to myself, if I was in her position, not a single one of those things would have the faintest significance to me. In fact, sitting in traffic would feel like a privilege. A few months later, I was in the playroom with another patient.

A few months later, I was in the playroom with another patient. From a distance, sitting at a table coloring on her own, I saw Anabell. It felt like time stopped for that one moment. I stared at her, my eyes glossy and swelling.

She got a donor. She made it. 

I wanted to go over and hug her but she was still frail from recovery. Also, she had no idea who I was. In fact, she will go through her entire life not knowing I exist. She will never know that she made my heart grow bigger with love that day we met. Or that my memory with her is on that I reflect upon often. The short time of our encounter became an eternal message I carry daily with me. Yet, she will grow up never knowing that at two years old, she taught the lesson of a lifetime.

2 thoughts on “Change of Heart: A Story of an Unspoken Lesson

  1. Hello my name is Tania. I came across your site because your sister, Sara, posted about you today. I know her from middle/high school. I began looking at a few of your blog entries and right away clicked on this one. I don’t know if it was a coincidence but when I began reading I sighed “omg”. The first one I clicked on and it was about a beautiful experience you had in a hospital. The reason I have felt moved by this is because I am currently in the process of trying to begin a Masters program in Child Life. I recently graduated and I am in that stage where I’m doubting decisions in life. My point is, this right here has helped me solidify that I do want to pursue a career in Child Life. I commend you for all the wonderful things you are doing and have done. Thank you!


    1. Tania, wow. I’m speechless. Thank you for taking the time to share that with me. You filled up my heart with such a big smile. I’m so glad this post was able to help you in some way! My experience with Child Life professionals was so wonderful. They really do make such a huge difference for sick children. You’re leaping into an incredibly rewarding field.


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