April 9, 2018 | by Samantha Bonar
The comprehensive care team at City of Hope knows that there is more than one way to make a kid with cancer feel better. While using medications to alleviate symptoms and treatments to seek a cure are of course essential, keeping spirits up is also important.
That’s how City of Hope leukemia patient Chris Leal, 2, ended up with a custom superhero costume created by one of Hollywood’s top costume designers.
For the special treat, City of Hope partnered with the nonprofit Lollipop Theater Network, which typically brings current-release movies to kids in hospitals. This time, however, Lollipop is doing something different: pairing eight top TV and film costume designers with eight sick kids in Los Angeles-area hospitals to craft custom superhero duds.
“We aren’t going to dress them up like Wonder Woman or Batman,” said Evelyn Iocolano, executive director of Lollipop. “We want them to think about their own strengths and superpowers.”
Specifically, Lollipop was looking for a sick child to pair with Kym Barrett, a longtime Hollywood costume designer who is currently creating the costumes for the forthcoming “Aquaman” movie. The organization reached out to City of Hope and asked if the hospital had any likely candidates. City of Hope social workers immediately thought of Chris.
Diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia just after his first birthday in February 2017, Chris has spent almost half of his young life in hospitals. Last year, he underwent five rounds of chemotherapy over eight months at a hospital near his home in Lawndale, California.
He was finally discharged from the hospital last October, only to relapse by January 2018. At that point, his parents brought him to City of Hope for a potentially lifesaving bone marrow transplant. Chris entered the hospital on Feb. 26, began his pretransplant chemotherapy on March 1 and received his transplant April 3. He will remain hospitalized for about another 10 weeks.
Even with all of the grueling treatments and hospitalizations, Chris’ mom, Ruth Martinez, says her son is high-spirited and easily entertained with toys and games. “He stays busy,” she said. “I’m doing OK because I see him doing OK.”
When City of Hope social worker Renee Ortiz reached out to Martinez and asked if Chris would be interested in working with Barrett on a custom superhero costume, Martinez jumped a tall building in a single bound at the chance.
“He definitely loves superheroes,” said Martinez, whose husband and mother-in-law care for her other three children while she remains with Chris (“I never leave his side,” she said).
So Lollipop and Barrett came to visit Chris in the hospital in early March.
“She sat down with him and started coloring with him and asked him what his favorite colors are. She asked him what superheroes he likes. She also asked him to draw himself, and his favorite pet. Looking at the pictures, you can tell the conversations were really good,” Martinez said.
“I loved that Chris was so self-assured,” Barrett said. “He chose his favorite colors and even had his own slogan of ‘Peace out!’ This defined his character and his eventual look.”
A couple of weeks later, Barrett returned and presented the completed costume to a “really surprised and excited” and “a little sleepy from chemo” Chris. It features Chris’s favorite colors of orange and blue and incorporates a peace sign, along with a mask and cape. It also accommodates his medical needs and is comfy. “I decided to make a costume that Chris could sleep in if he wanted, or run around the unit flirting with the nurses,” Barrett said. “It has a break at the waist so he doesn’t have to take it off to get his labs done.”
“I am very fortunate to have two healthy teenagers, and so I'm very happy to be involved in a fun dress-up event for Chris and his family,” said Barrett, who also designed the costumes for “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Green Hornet,” “Speed Racer” and the “Matrix” films, among many others.
A special bonus was a picture Barrett drew of Chris wearing his costume and framed. “He loved it,” Martinez said. “He was walking around with his picture today.”
The eight costume designers and their patients will show off their collaborations at the Lollipop Superhero Walk fundraiser on April 29 at Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles.
“It’s a day for us to celebrate our superheroes,” Iocolano said. Chris will still be recovering from his transplant, so he won’t be able to participate, but his mom is confident he will be participating remotely from City of Hope.
“He’s going to be here, and he has a costume here,” she said. “They’ve taken care of everything. Everything. Entertaining him, playing with him. It’s been pretty awesome.”