Down to the Sea with Love: They Come to the Island for a Memorable Voyage


For three magic days they were not heart transplant patients or the leukemia kids in the next ward. They were neither stuck with needles, nor looped through high-tech machines.

For three magic days their parents forgot about blood counts, organ rejection and the next visit to yet another specialist at Boston Children's Hospital.

For three magic days they were just moms, dads and kids on an old wooden boat skimming across Vineyard Sound.

"To outsiders it might have looked like any group of passengers on board, but knowing just a little of what these families and children struggle with every single day and what they've overcome, makes this a gift that won't be forgotten," said Emily King from Boston Children's Hospital Center for Families. "On the boat they weren't children with chronic illnesses anymore, but crew members hoisting ropes, pulling up the anchor and making new friends."

Both this week and last the Douglas family donated their tall ships Alabama and Shenandoah to more than 75 kids and their family members for whom Boston Children's Hospital is a second home. "We wanted to have everyone come on board because when a kid is sick, the whole family is the patient," said Rob Douglas, Black Dog operations manager.

For some kids the sail marked special anniversaries. Justin Lammert from Albany, N.Y., celebrated his 17th birthday and the five-year mark of his heart transplant with a cake and candles at Tarpaulin Cove. His sister, Allison, 10, who earlier confessed a fear of boats, was leaping off the Alabama rail before the ship even left anchor - later followed by Justin and big brother Sean. Their mother, Cindy, jumped from halfway up the rigging. "I've never seen the family so silly and relaxed," said Donna Alvarez, an aunt who doubles as surrogate mother at the Lammert home during the long hospital stints in Boston.

Justin Annis, 19, of Holyoke, spent his summer two years ago recovering from a heart transplant. Surrounded by two high school pals who sailed with him on the overnight cruise, the trio ushered in the full moon Monday playing the guitar and singing on deck.

"Adults and children crouched down and climbed over every nook and cranny of these old vessels with such innocence and delight. There was always a discovery to be made - the rocking table that kept food balanced, the old pedal organ and, of course, the first mate yelling out directions that sent everyone hustling," remarked Ms. King.

The Children's Hospital family sail had a serendipitous beginning around the Douglas breakfast table at the Black Dog one May morning. When a hole opened up in the Alabama and Shenandoah schedule, the first thought was to give the time away - to whom was the challenge.

"I am not quite sure who came up with the idea of donating the sails to Children's Hospital, but we knew we wanted to do something special with the time," said Charlene Douglas.

The adventure was a first for most aboard. Few had ever sailed, and none on such tall ships. "Mommy, it's so big," said Monica Jennings, an eight-year-old who was soaking in the day.

Monica is a "lifer" at Children's Hospital, explained her mother, Lisa. "She can't swallow normally and has a permanent ‘trach' in her throat," said Ms. Jennings. Monica is especially prone to respiratory infections, but not today.

When Jamie Douglas arrived with a box of Black Dog T-shirts, Monica was the first to leap forward and slip into her new uniform. Huddled around Jamie's tale of the real Black Dog, the younger kids were pleased that the tavern and family emblem was in honor of a pet. "So, these T-shirts are not just cool shirts that show you've been to Martha's Vineyard. Behind them is this real story about my dad and his dog and our family and all the families that we've shared our food and boats with," said Jamie.

After lunch, the Alabama was under way with rails in the water under a stiff breeze with the distant Cape Pogue lighthouse beckoning. "I think we're going to see dolphins and whales," said Monica, gleaming as she moved around the boat like a sprite, peering over the sides.

Wonder prevailed on this day. "And it's so amazing to share this with my brother, Ben," said 15-year-old Nick Green.

"There's not a lot of things that we have in common. Ben's a real athletic kid, and I'm not at all. But sailing is something we both like to do and it's really special to be here with him," said Nick. Ben, 12, has been a patient at Children's Hospital for the past two years. As Ben declined to speak about his medical condition, big brother Nick hugged him tightly

Heading back and passing the Tabernacle's cross looming above the houses and trees of Oak Bluffs, music mingled with the breeze on deck. Nine-year-old Kenny Hadley, a liver transplant patient, played his recorder as everyone listened. Hanna Broderick, a 10-year-old with a brain development disorder, held the ship's wheel tightly as her dad watched proudly. She looked up at the sails and forward across the deck at her crew and passengers.

Hanna was captain for the day.

Back in the swelter of Boston and answering to the demands of charts and schedules, Ms. King reminisced about the time aboard. "These are the endless days of summer that every child should enjoy. Now that I am back at the hospital and working with families, some of whom are here for just a few days, and others who have been here for weeks and months, I savor our days at sail, the silly jokes, the apple crisp," she said. "The Douglas family gave these kids and their families a summer that won't ever end."

For most of these kids, however, no summer is taken for granted; no remission is considered permanent; no transplant is without the ever-looming clock ticking down. As the kids and their families boarded for the second day, Capt. Bob Douglas, surrounded by his own family, watched from his office porch.

"When your heart is working right, you don't have any problems at all, do you?" he said, choking back his tears.