Like most cancer patients, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Rob Thoms never expected to be diagnosed with the disease. When he went to City of Hope to be treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he got another surprise.
|Toni Carreras-Irwin and Rob Thoms share a laugh while sorting toys. (Photo by p.cunningham)|
Because beds were scarce at the time — in December 1989 — the 32-year-old officer was assigned a room in the former pediatrics ward. It may have been the best thing for him; the memories of his stay have kept him connected and committed to children with cancer for decades.
It was there, he remembers, where he first met Toni Carreras-Irwin, R.T.C., an upbeat recreation therapist whose mission was to cajole patients of all ages out of bed to play and socialize. Before long, Thoms was joining his shorter, younger peers throwing plastic bowling balls down the corridor and playing games.
During the next year, he regularly returned to spend five days in the hospital every three weeks so he could receive major doses of chemotherapy to combat a disease with a 30 percent survival rate. “I kind of requested to go to Peds,” he recalled.
Most of the children seemed to take their health and their confinement in stride, which rubbed off on him.
“It was fun — considering what we were all going through,” he said. “At first it was hard to see all the kids that way. But then, when you really stopped and looked, this didn’t stop them; being sick didn’t bother them. They were still running around playing.”
|Garrett Hutchins, 2, reaches for a Batmobile from members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as his toy frog, Mike, looks on. (Photo by p.cunningham)|
Thoms said fellow patients regarded him as “just another person there to play with.”
While he was undergoing inpatient treatment, he and his wife began buying “little toys” for the unit. Before long, other deputies and civilian personnel in his Temple City, Calif., station got involved.
Today, a number of stations within the Sheriff’s Department participate, providing so many toys that they are stored in City of Hope’s warehouse until they can be distributed to patients at the Pediatrics Picnic every June.
On Dec. 22, 2009, as Carreras-Irwin watched Thoms unload the latest offerings — marking two decades of deliveries — she noted that he shies away from any praise for his toy drive.
“He just likes seeing the kids smile,” she said, “and likes other people seeing that, too.”