The days at the hospital were lonely for Carson Leslie.
At 14, he was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a cancer targeting the brain. During The Covenant School student’s three-year battle, he rarely left his hospital room while in treatment. He died at 17.
“In the beginning, he was all that and everybody was wanting to be around. And then his friends were busy living their life. … as they should — they were teenagers,” said Annette Leslie, Carson’s mom.
In June, Children’s Medical Center of Dallas officially dedicated a teen room, called Carson’s Corner, in his honor.
It’s a place that Leslie believes her son would have enjoyed.
“I think it would have helped him emotionally. I think he could have helped some other kids, too, and they could have helped him. They could have talked — maybe not about how sick they were, but just to have a conversation,” she said.
The hospital already has a playroom where kids of all ages can go. Carson’s Corner, which has been accessible since November, offers an exclusive space for cancer patients ages 13 and older to relax and escape the hospital environment.
The converted treatment room has art supplies, an Xbox, TVs and a “cozy corner” for reading books and magazines. On a table, photos of Carson cover the front of a doodle book, where patients can leave encouraging messages or draw their own works of art.
There are also wireless headphones so some patients can watch a movie while others play video games.
Melinda Goff, a child life team leader at Children’s Health, said they wanted to make sure the space was well-rounded with activities for patients’ varied interests. Plus, there needed to be comfy couches to curl up on and a bright splash of paint.
“It was really important to us that it wasn’t a space that felt like it was just for one purpose,” Goff said.
Expenses for supplies and other ongoing needs for the room are funded through the Carson Leslie Foundation, which Leslie set up after her son’s death in 2010.
“If there’s nothing new that needs to be invested in at Carson’s Corner, maybe it’s some kid that just needs something,” Leslie said.
In addition to supporting the teen room, the Carson Leslie Foundation also funds trips four times a year for teens fighting cancer.
Patients are taken in limos for outings such as Rangers or Cowboys games. The events have helped build friendships, which Leslie said she hopes the teen room will also facilitate.
“We are putting together a unique place for them to gather, for them to share their hearts and their dreams and their fears and their loss of dreams,” she said.
As long as they have permission from their nurses or physicians, teens are free to hang out in the room on their own time. That freedom is important for patients at that age, Goff said.
“The space is really set up where the teens can come and go, and they have access to everything in the room, so that they are again being independent,” Goff said.
It is unlocked from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., but outside of those hours, patients can still access the room via card reader.
Ashley Jackson, who recently finished treatment for Ewing sarcoma, spent many hours in the teen room while at the hospital. She said she welcomed the change of scenery.
“It was nice to get out of my room and not just be in that one room with the same walls [all day],” said Ashley, a 17-year-old Denison resident.
She even connected with a fellow cancer-fighting teen hanging out in the space. The two would often spend time talking, drawing or playing games together, she said.
Goff has seen many other connections as well. The room has naturally led to friendships and motivated patients to socialize like they would outside of the hospital.
“When you walk past there and you just see a couple of teenagers hanging out talking like they would anywhere, that’s very powerful to healing and coping,” Goff said.
Foundation fulfills patient’s dying wish
Annette Leslie describes her son, Carson, as a giver.
Shortly before his death from cancer at 17, Carson imparted a plea to his mom that she can still remember.
“He was lying in his bed, and I was sitting there,” Leslie recalls.
“He whispered, ‘Mama,’ And I said, ‘Yeah, buddy?’”
His mother says Carson then said, “I thought I was going to make it.”
“I know, sugar; me too. I’m sorry,” Leslie said.
“Mom, don’t let them bury me,” she recalls her son saying. “Make sure they study those tumors in my brain because if those tumors could help some kid someday not die from cancer like I am, I’d like that — it’s hard to have cancer.”
Months after her son’s death in January 2010, Leslie started the Carson Leslie Foundation to both fund pediatric cancer research and encourage teens battling the disease.
In addition to its efforts with teens at Children’s Medical Center of Dallas, the foundation is funding pediatric cancer research projects at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.
Annette Leslie also serves on the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas’ Advisory Committee on Childhood Cancers.
“When you work together, bigger things can happen,” she said.
Carson wrote a book before his death about his experience with cancer in hopes it would inspire and help others understand.
Ashley Jackson, who recently finished treatment for Ewing sarcoma, read Carry Me and has thought about writing a book about her own struggles with cancer.
“His book helped me, so I want to write a book,” Ashley said.
In the meantime, the 17-year-old Denison resident has started her own foundation, Ashley’s Hearts of Hope. She said she doesn’t have an official nonprofit status yet, but she plans to apply for one next year.
Her goal is to give hope to kids with cancer with gestures such as a small gift or get-well cards. She said it’s in part to repay the support she received from the Carson Leslie Foundation and from Carol Basso of the 1 Million 4 Anna Foundation.