As a child life specialist, I have the privilege to work with families to encourage kids to play and have fun, even when they are cooped up in the hospital.
Sometimes, patients come up with their own ideas. And that’s exactly what happened with Elizabeth (Lizzie) Stratton and her paper cranes.
Lizzie was 9 years old when she was diagnosed with a rare liver cancer called hepatoblastoma. She spent quite a bit of time in treatment. But when she had some time to herself, she embarked on a special project: making 1,000 paper cranes.
Sami Stratton, Lizzie’s mother, explains why Lizzie started this beautiful artwork, and how the cranes helped their family after Lizzie passed away in 2006, at age 14.
Q: How did this project begin?
Sami Stratton: When Lizzie was 11, she read a book called One Thousand Paper Cranes: The Story of Sadako and the Children’s Peace Statue by Ishii Takayuki.
The book is about a young girl in Japan who was exposed to radiation when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. She was diagnosed with cancer 10 years later. Then, a student sent paper cranes to the kids at her hospital, and she took that idea and made 1,000 paper cranes.
Lizzie found that inspiring. She decided she wanted to try to fold her own 1,000 paper cranes. It seemed like a good way to pass the time while she was in the hospital.
Q: Was this a solo project?
Sami: Not at all. Doctors, nurses, patients, and visitors would wander into her room. They would see her folding, and would ask about it. Many asked if they could try doing it, too. Lizzie became known as the “crane folding girl” on the sixth floor.
Pretty soon, Lizzie was giving folding lessons, and those cranes began filling up the room. When she felt up to it, she would go to the nurses’ stations and hold “crane-folding parties.” Everyone could join in on the fun.
One day, she even held a demonstration at one of the doctor’s meetings. There were dozens of doctors trying to fold the cranes. Some of them decided that surgery was much easier.
Q: How did you keep track of all the cranes Lizzie was making?
Sami: Her dad, Joe, had a great idea. He decided to string the cranes together, and hang them on a hanger. We would string 10 cranes to a string, and have 10 strings per hanger, so each hanger would hold 100 cranes.
Q: What did you do with the hangers?
Sami: We started bringing the cranes with us to each hospital visit. It was quite a sight. Joe rigged a bar made of a PVC pipe and secured it to the van. He would hang the hangers on the bar, carry them into the hospital, and then carry them back out when we left.
Q: Did she reach her goal of 1,000 cranes?
Sami: As far as we can tell, she ended up with about 1,500 cranes. I still have the collection, and it’s still growing. Even to this day, her family and friends are continuing to make them. It’s a great way to remember her beautiful smile and spirit.
Q: How did the cranes help Lizzie?
Sami: It was such a fun pastime during a very difficult time in our lives. Lizzie liked to make everything fun, and folding those cranes did just that. It was like an ongoing party.
It was also very spiritual. I can’t remember who had the idea—it was probably Lizzie—but at some point, we decided to make each crane represent a prayer. So, as the cranes filled up the hospital room, it felt like we were being surrounded by prayers from each person that helped us fold.
Q: How have the cranes helped you?
Sami: Everyone who met Lizzie loved her, and many people who didn’t know her wanted to meet her because of the cranes.
The cranes keep reminding us about how inspirational Lizzie is, and how she still continues to inspire so many people. She was the light in our world during a dark time, and the cranes helped us keep that light.
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