Ethan Vargas didn’t plan it this way, but the 6-year-old celebrated his promotion from kindergarten surrounded not only by his mother, father and two older sisters, but also his extended family at CHOC.
An emergency sent Ethan back to CHOC in May 2023. He was born with a congenital heart defect and has been in and out of heart surgeries and doctor’s appointments since he was 8 days old.
Ethan spent five weeks in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit at CHOC. Nine of those days were spent on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a machine that gives the heart and lungs a chance to rest. This life-saving technology is for the sickest of patients; it takes over the heart’s pumping functions and the lung’s oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange.
During his time at CHOC, Ethan missed a month of school, including his class’s kindergarten graduation. Ashley McGee and Megan Mayo, child life specialists, knew this milestone could not be missed.
“Developmentally, it is crucial for this age group to gain a sense of accomplishment and success to achieve the virtue of competency,” says Ashley. “When a child has achieved this virtue, they are able to continue to grow and flourish into becoming more confident and independent.”
Ethan’s very own graduation ceremony was held at CHOC. Other child life specialists, resident dog Lois, Ethan’s heart surgeons, doctors, nursing staff, physical therapists, and even his school teacher, Irma Ramos-Flores, and Violeta Hernandez, the principal of Ethan’s elementary school in Whittier, came to his surprise ceremony to celebrate him.
The CHOC Difference
Meeting the needs of a pediatric patient goes beyond providing cutting-edge medical care. It also means providing smiles and meaningful moments of celebration that brighten their journeys toward wellness. While holistic care is offered at some facilities, no other health system considers these treatments as part of the standard of care like we do. That’s because CHOC also provides the mental, emotional and spiritual care that patients and families need to thrive.
Through the generosity of our supporters, CHOC’s young patients have a personalized hospital experience, where they can heal, grow, learn and celebrate while receiving medical treatment. Because of the pioneering work of our Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department, CHOC helps kids feel like kids, even when hospitalized. Everything in child life—the activities, supplies, distraction tools, playroom items, play opportunities and expressive arts, as well as the professional child life staff members—is solely supported through philanthropy.
CHOC doesn’t look at what’s not possible. We aim for the possible, so our work doesn’t stop when insurance ends. We have a commitment to take care of kids and their families, despite their ability to pay and even when services aren’t covered by insurance. That’s why philanthropy is so important—to fill the gap and provide seamless treatment and care.
Ethan was all smiles during his celebration. In addition to his kindergarten graduation certificate, he was presented with achievement awards for “Alphabet and Words Learned” and “Leadership” for all the perseverance he has made throughout the year.
“Ethan is an incredible young heart hero,” says Dr. Nita Doshi, his primary cardiologist. “One thing about Ethan is his beautiful disposition has been the same ever since he was born. He has the biggest smile on his face every single time you see him, sometimes irrespective of how tough his journey has been. His smile is something that has remained consistent throughout, even in the face of challenges.”
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While the Cherese Mari Laulhere Child Life Department provides invaluable support that turns a scary, painful hospital visit into a positive experience for children and families, these services are not revenue-producing nor are they reimbursable through insurance. Thus, memorable events like Ethan’s graduation are dependent upon philanthropy and donors like you.