Just down the hall from the chemo infusion rooms at Texas Children's Hospital, Jalen Huckabay was about to slip into another world, away from the wearying regimen of pokes, prods and pinches she'd endured since being diagnosed with lymphoma in November.
For the next few hours, the curly-haired, cherub-faced 16-year-old would become a songwriter.
Purple Songs Can Fly, a one-of-a-kind program at one of the country's largest pediatric cancer care facilities, gives patients a chance to record their own songs in a fully equipped recording studio at the hospital.
More than 116 songs have been recorded since Purple Songs began in March 2006 as part of the cancer center's Arts in Medicine program. Some of the recordings have been featured on audio tracks aboard Continental Airlines flights, and flown into space aboard the space shuttle.
Yet Jalen hesitated when her oncologist asked if she wanted to write and record a song. She wasn't sure what to expect. She is normally reserved, prone to one-word answers and prefers to stick close to her mother. She doesn't like singing in front of other people.
But she can talk for hours about Jasmine, the pint-size Yorkshire terrier she got as a Christmas present last year. That's the puppy she calls MYD: My Yippin' Dog.
Purple Songs founder Anita Kruse immediately knew that Jalen's words contained the kernels of a song, and that behind the girl's shy exterior, a creative spirit lurked.
"There's a point where the kids realize they are not thinking about anything else. It's just about being in that creative place," said Kruse, a Houston-based singer-songwriter who raised $10,000 to start Purple Songs, which is funded through donations. "Seeing someone going through something really difficult let that go, even if it's just for the moment, it's beautiful."
Creativity, comfort in hard times
It had been an especially rough week for Jalen, who is no stranger to rough weeks. A few days earlier, a good friend and fellow transplant patient had died. Then, the day before Jalen's first double chemo session, her grandfather had open-heart surgery.
A rough week, coming at the end of a rough year.
In March, Jalen's doctor told her parents she would die within two months without a lung transplant. Her own lungs, weakened by cystic fibrosis, could no longer sustain her. It would be the second transplant for Jalen, who received a new liver four years ago.
"We just prayed that those lungs came quick," said Karen Huckabay, Jalen's mother.
A donor match — the lungs of a 19-year-old girl who died of an aneurysm — were found in eight days. The transplant was performed at Texas Children's, one of three hospitals in the country that perform pediatric lung transplants.
A few months later, an infection sent Jalen back to Texas Children's — she needed 17 operations over 11 weeks. In November, doctors detected a type of lymphoma that can occur in transplant recipients. They found post-transplant lymphoma in her tonsils and put Jalen on six-month course of chemotherapy.
For all but four weeks of 2008, Jalen and her mother have lived in an apartment near the hospital, 400 miles from home in Albany, Texas. Far from Jalen's father, her younger sister, her friends — and Jasmine.
That's why she wanted to write the song.
"I miss her very much," Jalen said of her pet.
Many of the children in Purple Songs write about their pets, or families, or other bits and pieces of home life.
"So many of them want to express gratitude and thanks to their friends or family or the doctors for being there for them, to that element of whatever is comforting during this time," said Kruse. "That dog is comforting for Jalen."
Lyrics come, a word at a time
Inside the recording studio, Jalen reached into the purse dangling from the IV trolley and pulled out a cell phone. She wanted Kruse to see photos of her little Yorkie.
"Oh, she's adorable!" said Kruse. "Of course, she needs a song about her."
"So do you call her a puppy?" asked Kruse, as the two worked side-by-side in the cramped recording studio. Kruse sat at a Mac with a piano keyboard and Garage Band software. Jalen sat next to her beeping IV monitor, a protective face mask around her chin.
"We call her Jaz, Jasmine," replied Jalen, speaking barely above a whisper.
Kruse, with flaxen hair reaching down the back of a long purple jacket, jotted Jalen's words onto her notepad with a purple-inked pen. Then she hummed softly. "Yipping dog ... she high fives ... twirls."
"She loves beef jerky," Jalen added, her muffled voice inching up just a notch. "If you give it to her from the bag, she'll be your best friend... If you pat your tummy, she'll jump into your arms."
"She's just a year old? Would you say her hair's curly?," asked Kruse. "When it's long, it curls?"
"We dressed her up in a Build-a-Bear wedding dress," laughed Jalen, the words tumbling out a little easier. "Whenever you give her a bath, she hates the towel. She attacks the towel."
Without realizing it, Jalen was composing lyrics. With each phrase, a new verse filled Kruse's notepad: "She does high fives. She sits. She twirls. If we let her hair grow, she has pretty curls."
Kruse gave Jalen a thumbs up. "That's one verse. Now we just need a chorus."
"You've got to have MYD. My yippin' dog," joked Jalen's mother.
Jalen and Kruse looked at each other. That was it.
Kruse's pen flew across paper.
"MYD is my yippin' dog. Got her last Christmas on the 23rd. We call her Jaz. She's the Yorkie we chose. We dress her up in Build-A-Bear clothes."
Jalen hunched her shoulders and pulled the IV cord up to her lips. Behind her hands, she was smiling.
Battling cancer behind the microphone
Karen Huckabay peered into the recording studio, amazed. Moments earlier, too shy to sing in front of onlookers, her daughter had banished everyone except Kruse from the room.
Now Jalen was standing behind a microphone, singing her newly-minted song ... and smiling. A grin spread across her mother's face too.
It had been less than two hours since Jalen entered the Purple Songs studio. Her initial reluctance had evaporated. Now, she wanted everyone to hear the song.
"MYD's my yippin' dog. Got her last Christmas on the 23rd ... If you give her a bath. She attacks the towel. If you make her mad. She will growl ... Yip. Yip. Yip. Yip."
Kruse had taken Jalen's lyrics, and added a bouncy music track with a thumping bass and lively melody meant to evoke the antics of a mischievous dog. Then Jalen recorded several vocal tracks, creating the illusion of back-up singers. It was Jalen's idea to throw in a few yips for fun.
"That is so cool!" exclaimed Huckabay. "Do you think the Jonas Brothers will want to buy that?"
"I'm so excited. I love it!" added ZoAnne Dreyer, Jalen's oncologist, who had stopped by to check on Jalen before her chemotherapy session. "Did you ever think you'd come to clinic and end up writing a song?"
Jalen just giggled.
"That's the most animated I've ever seen her," Dreyer said later. "She's been transformed today and that giddiness will sustain her through her chemo session.
"We're trying to get kids through cancer, so the more fun we can make it, the better their response is to everything," Dreyer said. "It will give them a chance to get beyond this."
Jalen still has five months of chemo in front of her, but she went home for Christmas for two weeks. And she's been pricing home recording studios.
"At the beginning, I thought I sounded terrible," she said of her first song. "But as you listen to it more, you learn to like it a little better."