Wearing pajamas to school might seem like a fun way to spend the day, but for thousands of children across Connecticut, it’s more of a mission. In December, children and adults alike wore their pajamas to school and work, donating $1 or more for the privilege of doing so. On this special day, known as “PJ Day for the Kids,” thousands dressed in pajamas in solidarity and support of children who wear their pajamas while undergoing cancer treatment at Connecticut Children’s.
Each year, more than 100 patients are newly diagnosed with cancer at Connecticut Children’s. And last August, 13-year-old Hannah Forstell was among them. Hannah, the daughter of Katy and Eric Forstell of Manchester, was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma and is currently undergoing treatment.
“Hannah has stayed in the hospital for more than 50 days since August,” her mother, Katy said. “She definitely lives in PJs for days at a time.”
When Hannah first began experiencing shoulder pain last summer, her family had no idea a cancer diagnosis was looming.
“She was complaining of intermittent shoulder pain for a few weeks,” Katy recalled. “As most mothers do, I was thinking it was growing pains. She would complain of pain and then go out and do handstands in the pool, play with her friends in the yard and attend summer camp. I took her to the pediatrician at the end of July, and he didn’t think much of it either and recommended an orthopedic consult with Connecticut Children’s.”
On July 30, 2019, Hannah was seen in the Connecticut Children’s Farmington office. “She had an x-ray—and our whole world changed,” said Katy, who is an ultrasound/X-ray technologist. Hannah underwent a bone biopsy on August 5, and started chemotherapy on August 12.
“Everything moved very quickly, and all of her care has been at Connecticut Children’s,” her mother said.
Battling Cancer in PJs
On December 13, 2019, children in 154 out of 169 towns across Connecticut wore their pajamas to school to benefit kids currently undergoing cancer treatment at Connecticut Children’s.
Hannah, an 8th-grade student at Illing Middle School in Manchester—who loves reading and writing and is now keeping up with her studies through a tutor—is no stranger to the annual event. “I participated in ‘PJ Day’ every year as a student since kindergarten,” she said. “To hear that all these people have come out to raise money for kids like me is very comforting and kind.”
“PJ Day for the Kids” began as a grassroots fundraiser in 2011 at the suggestion of Nick Wesoloskie. He wanted to do something to honor his sister, Charlotte, who was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma at 21 days of age. The funds raised from “PJ Day” benefit patient care, cancer research, clinical trials and family assistance programs at Connecticut Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders. In 2017, “PJ Day for the Kids” became an official state day of awareness observed each year on the second Friday of December.
In its first year, “PJ Day for the Kids” raised $500. On December 13, 2019, more than 400 schools, 100 businesses and 177 Dunkin’ locations across the state participated in the 9th annual “PJ Day.” As of mid-January, it had already surpassed its 2018 fundraising record of $265,000 and is currently at $300,000 and counting. Over the past eight years, “PJ Day for the Kids” has generated more than $650,000 for the Connecticut Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders and is now poised to raise $1 million, once all donations have come in from schools across the state.
“Kids fighting cancer are missing out on birthday parties, school, sports and entire parts of their childhood, enduring grueling treatments while wearing their PJs,” said Tara Wesoloskie, RN, a perioperative nurse at Connecticut Children’s who chairs the event. “On ‘PJ Day,’ people all across Connecticut showed them they were not alone! Connecticut cares, and we are clearly united now and committed to making sure kids have their best chance to grow up.”
PJ Day Support Grows
And that support continues to grow. Over at John W. Wallace Middle School (JWMS) in Newington, where the student body and staff took part in “PJ Day for the Kids” for the very first time, participation was high.
“We have 667 students, and I would say at least three-quarters of them took part in one way or another,” said Lauren Close, a Grade 5-8 reading teacher, who served as a team captain with Kelly Pinho, a Grade 8 Spanish teacher at John Wallace. “The faculty participated as well—including our principal (Daniel Dias)—and we were proud and comfy doing so,” Lauren said. “Additionally, we have a teacher whose nephew is a patient at Connecticut Children’s, so it was great to be able to support her and her family as well.”
In its inaugural year, the students and staff at John W. Wallace Middle School raised $950, with an anonymous donation bumping the total up to $1,050. “We will definitely participate next year, and—I’m going to call it now—we will raise more money!” Lauren said.
“This was one of the most meaningful events we have held at JWMS and we are always having special days to raise money or goods for people in need,” Lauren noted. “However, to see so many students participate and for them to be able to clearly articulate why we were doing it, made this teacher—and many others—very, very proud.”
“JWMS is a special place and our students proved it that day with their giving spirits,” she said. “I know that many people approached me to say that this was such a special cause and that the idea behind it, while sad, was also inspiring. I hope ‘PJ Day’ is around for years and years and that it continues to support getting rid of childhood cancer forever!”
The Journey Continues
As for Hannah, her treatment journey continues at Connecticut Children’s. She has undergone 10 weeks of chemotherapy, had surgery on the tumor in her arm, and will have undergone two lung surgeries for metastatic disease by January 23. She will then undergo approximately four more months of chemotherapy, her mother said.
“We are about halfway in this journey,” Katy explained, noting that Hannah has remained extremely positive throughout. “Her care has been wonderful, and as devastating as this has been, the care and compassion of everyone has been amazing,” she said.
And Hannah would agree.
“For kids who are newly diagnosed with cancer, I know it can be very scary and overwhelming for you and your family,” Hannah said. “But I want you to know that you will meet lovely people who will support you, and you will look back at this as an experience that made you a stronger person.”
If you would like to support patient care, research, clinical trials and family assistance programs at Connecticut Children’s Center for Cancer & Blood Disorders, click here.
“PJ Day for the Kids” will be Friday, December 11, 2020.