Cole Whitworth, a shy 7-year-old with a mischievous grin, peeks out from underneath an oversized, neon-green New York Yankees cap. In the basement of the Spokane Ronald McDonald House, he holds up a stuffed monkey with a similarly wide smile.
Sporting a bright yellow T-shirt and long, floppy arms, the plush primate has served Cole as a sort of stunt double, travel companion and steady connection to his friends back home.
For much of the past 15 months, Cole has traveled back and forth to Spokane for cancer treatments. While he has recuperated at the Sacred Heart Children's Hospital, his mother Cecile Lafromboise says the monkey held his place in class in Polson, Mont.
"We saw his monkey sitting right in his spot at the table," Lafromboise says of a recent classroom visit. "[The monkey] is going down the halls with all of the kids. They have him hand-in-hand, and he goes everywhere with them."
Cole's family received the monkey through the national Monkey in My Chair program. The Cincinnati-based organization offers monkey kits to elementary age children undergoing long hospital treatments that keep them out of school and away from friends. The monkeys provide a physical presence in class and become a tool for helping other children understand their classmate's illness and absences.
Each kit contains two stuffed monkeys and support materials. One full-sized monkey goes to the school to stand in for the child, while a smaller, doll-sized monkey stays with the sick child. The child's teacher gets lesson plans to help classmates comprehend what the sick child is going through.
To help bridge the social gap, the kit also includes notebooks and a camera for passing letters and photos back and forth between classmates.
Kim Ramirez, a family advocate with the Children's Hospital, says about 15 Spokane-area families have participated in the program since 2010. With young oncology patients often missing long periods of school, the Monkey in My Chair program provides some additional continuity for children balancing class and cancer treatment.
"A lot of the schools embrace it," Ramirez says. "It's a way to still keep that child connected to the classroom. ... It really helps in that transition, when they come and they integrate back into the classroom. It's not like they were just gone and all of a sudden they're back again."
Lafromboise says doctors discovered Cole had a brain tumor just as he had started kindergarten in the fall of 2012. The family traveled regularly to Spokane for treatment, often gone for three weeks at a time as Cole underwent surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
During his absences, his first-grade classmates carried around their matching monkey with his name on it. His friends whisked the monkey around to various activities, visiting the library or lunch room. The monkey even sat in for Cole in class photos.
Lafromboise says hospital programs provided tutors to help Cole keep up with his schoolwork, but the monkey helped keep Cole attached socially to his friends four hours away in Montana.
"This program, it's not only good for Cole, but it's good for his buddies at school," Lafromboise says. "Being that age, they don't understand what's going on. ... I think this program helps [explain] the big picture and where he's at and that he's doing good."
The kits also include a storybook with a touching story about what many of the sick children face. Lafromboise says the story and other materials do a great job of helping children cope with illness.
Inspired by the memory of Chloe Watson-Feyerherm — a 7-year-old from Salina, Kan., who died of cancer in 2007 — the Monkey in My Chair program now partners with more than 130 hospitals nationwide. Ramirez says the local hospital keeps several kits on hand for future families. Additional monkey kits can be sponsored online for $75.
"Every family gets a new kit," she says. "They keep it."
Lafromboise says Cole received a clear diagnosis in November following a final round of chemotherapy. After a long and trying fight, the family has started preparing to head home for good. Cole will return to class and the stuffed monkey will get a long-awaited break.
"It's been a long haul," Lafromboise says, praising the program. "It's just been really helpful." ♦