As she sat watching the dance floor, 16-year-old Madisson Somero’s pink hair stood out, and not just because the strobe lights were bouncing off her candy-colored tresses. She was one of only a few at the party who still had hair. Somero sat alone, out of the way, while across the room, a group of girls in sequined dresses danced with glee to “Hotline Bling” and “Bad Blood.”
Only a few weeks ago, Somero had learned that she has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and she’d just started treatment at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital. The April dance, held on the hospital’s observation deck, was her first prom. Over 100 patients ages 14 to 19 and their family members were at the event, which gave the teens the chance to experience an adolescent milestone many otherwise may have missed.
“When they think of prom, I want them to not think that the world is that dark of a place,” said Thomas Nguyen, co-owner of South African restaurant Peli Peli, who helped organize the first annual party. The evening featured all the trappings of a real-deal prom—a Great Gatsby theme, photo booth and DJ— plus a few extras, such as a stunning skyline view and catering by eight of the city’s best restaurants. “I want them to feel that their sickness hasn’t held them back in any way,” said Nguyen, “and they can be a normal teenager.”
The prom was also a first for 18-year-old David Olazaba. Diagnosed at 9 years old with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he would spend the majority of the years that followed at the hospital receiving treatment, eventually getting his GED. Over time, he formed close friendships with his fellow patients, many of whom were dancing alongside him. “It’s heart-touching in a way that we have this night for ourselves,” said Olazaba, sporting a white suit jacket and bowtie, catching his breath between songs. “It’s like something I can cross off my bucket list.”
Somero’s friends, meanwhile, were still at her old high school. “Most of my friends are still shocked and are like, ‘What? We were just hanging out two days ago and you were perfectly fine,’” Somero recalled, adding that she wanted to connect with others suffering from the same condition. “I want to hear their stories about how they deal with it and get better,” she said. “How some days it can be the worst ever, but then other days it just feels normal.”
At the reception area on another floor, Somero’s father Sean Bowers sat with his wife, chatting with the other parents. While he said his daughter’s recent diagnosis had been “pretty traumatizing,” he was glad she was attending the prom. “It’s like a morale booster to lift her spirits up and give her something to look forward to,” said Bowers, who helped Somero pick out her black dress from among a selection of gowns donated to the hospital by community members from across the city.
Back upstairs, the dance floor was heating up, although many of the teens needed frequent breaks. Olazaba and a few fellow patients walked up to Somero, who was sitting alone and singing along to every song. When they asked her to dance, she smiled shyly, said yes and stood to join them.