In life, there are moments that stick with you. Moments that define you. And mostly, it’s not the major milestones but those run-of-the-mill times that provide both happiness and, eventually, perspective.
For Marie Soza, some of her most treasured memories happened during car rides with her son, Blaise. As the duo traveled back and forth to Driscoll Children’s Hospital for Blaise’s cancer treatments, they’d belt out the lyrics to the 90s hit “Circle of Life” from the movie “The Lion King”.
“…In the circle of life, it’s the wheel of fortune, it’s the leap of faith, it’s the band of hope,” they’d sing. “‘Til we find our place on the path unwinding, in the circle, the circle of life.”
The circle that connects us all, Soza would find, would one day connect her to chronically ill children throughout South Texas and beyond. Her mission: to offer them a semblance of everyday childhood through the education they receive in her classroom at the Panda Cares Center of Hope at Driscoll Children’s Hospital.
And while Blaise lost his battle with cancer 16 months after his treatments began, this little boy’s fire for life could not be extinguished. Twenty-seven years later, his legacy lives on through the “aha moments” children get to experience while enveloped in an environment of learning and loving care at Driscoll.
Blaise was just 6 when he passed away. While a brain tumor took his life, it could not take away his impact.
It’s something his mother draws upon daily as she serves as lead teacher at Driscoll’s hospital school program. In a job that straddles the line between heartwarming and gut-wrenching, Soza is driven not only by her love for her students but also to honor Blaise’s memory and caring spirit, which gives her courage in the classroom every day.
Teaching at Driscoll, she said, substitutes joy in place of the pain she still experiences after losing her son in 1996. “(Blaise) gave me the courage to do what I’m doing now,” Soza said. “He gave me the love to pass on to all these families. I talk to him at work when I have kids that need extra help. I’ll say, ‘OK, you need to help this little boy. You need to help this family. You need to be in this room and help them.’”
It’s a love that never fails her.
And as Blaise’s favorite song goes on, “There’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done…,” but Soza is more determined than ever.
These days, she’s giving it her all — even inspiring other children’s hospitals across the country to create their own hospital schools.
She was recently honored for her work at Children’s Hospitals Week as the 2022 Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals U.S. Impact Award recipient. There, she shared her story and talked about Blaise, who, while a patient at Driscoll, became a Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals champion and was recognized at the annual telethon.
At the event in April 2023, she ended her speech by saying “I know Blaise is smiling down on me now saying ‘Mom, we chose the right song.”
For Soza, the national honor is one of those full-circle moments she’ll never forget. But there are others she’s experienced throughout her decades of teaching at Driscoll. One is etched on paper — a simple note she keeps at her desk; its message, though, is complex.
“If we can make them smile and laugh, and maybe learn the multiplication tables, and forget thestruggles that they’re in right at that moment, that’s the most important thing,” explained Soza, adding that a patient helped her realize the little stuff can help you deal with the big stuff.
After all, children aren’t supposed to be chronically ill. They are supposed to run outside, jump in puddles, swing high enough until it seems they might touch the sky.
This is why hospital schools, like Driscoll’s Panda Cares Center of Hope classroom, are so essential — because they stress the importance of an everyday childhood. The school not only keeps kids from falling behind their peers academically, but it also gives them the sense of normalcy they so desperately need.
“The classroom is vital to these children because it gets them away from the bedside,” said Robin Smith, Driscoll’s director of patient and family services. “We’ve got kids programming all the time at Driscoll, but stepping away and entering an environment they’re used to gives them a sense of normalcy. It also helps them maintain their education so that when they go back totheir regular school, they’re not far behind.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics emphasizes the importance of providing access to hospital schools for all admitted children. Research also shows that access to school services reduces stress for caregivers of hospitalized children.
On average, Driscoll’s emergency room cares for 40,000 patients across South Texas each year. From Corpus Christi to the Rio Grande Valley to Victoria and Laredo, all area families can be confident their children receive expert care close to home.
Children at Driscoll have access to the eighth-floor hospital classroom as early as their first day of admission. The school is part of the Corpus Christi Independent School District (CCISD). Students in the hospital for a brief time, from grades pre-K through 12, can get support from Driscoll teachers to keep up with their home district curriculum.
Those at Driscoll for an extended time can officially enroll in Driscoll’s school instead. The school typically serves more than 200 patients per year since it was re-established with Soza at the helm in 2008.
Now, Soza is there for all patients who come through her classroom doors at Driscoll. And once she works with a student, she’s their teacher for life. Soza, like so many of the doctors and staff at Driscoll, embrace patients like they are family. Because for her, they are.
And like family, she’s there for the major milestones — hospital release dates, high school graduations, marriages — but also for the run-of-the-mill times as well.
“I think Blaise would be proud of the way that I’ve continued to live his legacy to try to be happy,to make something good out of something bad that happened in his life — in our lives,” she said. “And I think he’s smiling at me.”
And certainly, still singing his favorite “Circle of Life” with his mom, too.
“And some have to live with the scars,” the song goes on. “…And some of us soar to the stars.”