Before she was a Riley patient, Indianapolis high school senior Breana Allen hadn’t heard of Child Life. But now the term means everything to Breana: her lifeline in coping with terrible pain and the dream of a career that drives her to succeed in school in spite of huge challenges.

Breana was diagnosed at birth with sickle cell disease - an inherited condition which causes blood cells to form in a crescent shape. Breana was 5 when she had her first sickle cell crisis, triggered by a jump into a cold pool. The painful episodes are caused when the abnormally-shaped blood cells can’t flow normally.

“You don’t want to move,” explains Breana, rubbing her hands over her skin as she recalls the pain. “It’s deep, deep down in your bones.” Her worst sickle cell crisis came at age 16, when the pain literally took her breath away. “It was horrible,” recalls her mother, Robyn Allen-Miller, who called an ambulance that day. “She was saying it felt like someone was sitting on her chest.” Through every ordeal, Breana has found a “home away from home” on the hematology/oncology floor at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. There, doctors calm her pain with medications, and Child Life Specialists lift her spirits with activities. Breana treasures the memory of an evening when she was struggling with pain-induced sleeplessness, and Riley Child Life Specialist Jaclyn Smith offered her a lifeline. “It was 6 p.m.; it was time for her to go home,” Breana recalls. “But she stayed with me and talked with me until I fell asleep. I will never forget that.”

The warm and outgoing teen now volunteers with Riley’s Child Life staff about twice per week. Her goal of becoming a Child Life Specialist has helped her stay on track to graduate from Pike High School this spring in spite of her many hospitalizations. Breana has one piece of advice for other students dealing with sickle cell disease: “Don’t give up!”

Riley Hospital social worker Andy Harner admires the way Breana takes younger Riley patients under her wing, and the way she bravely shared her story at a major sickle cell conference. He nominated her to become a Riley Champion. “Breana continues to give back even though she struggles herself,” says Harner. “She is bright and will represent Riley well.”

Breana’s mother puts it even more simply: “She is my champion.”

 

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