Tony Adkins of Villa Park is a physician assistant whose videos of dancing with pediatric patients went viral. This is his story:
When I was a little kid growing up on the tough streets of South Central L.A. in the ’80s and early ’90s, stuck inside the house, I’d put on NWA, Grandmaster Flash, LL Cool J, Run-DMC, and more—and I’d dance. Music made me happy. I had no idea that someday my dancing would help hospitalized kids at Children’s Hospital of Orange County and even get me on national TV.
I love the brain and always wanted to work with kids, so CHOC’s the perfect place for me. Kids are resilient. They heal faster. They’re easier. They don’t need a lot of pain medications to make them feel better, unlike adults. And kids respond much better to joking around, perfect for an old class clown like me.
One day (about a year ago), 11-year-old Elias Gonzales, a leukemia patient, clearly needed a good laugh. His body had begun overproducing cerebral spinal fluid, causing headaches. He needed more surgery. Stuck in the hospital, unable to go anywhere, he was kind of dreary, not talking much, getting depressed.
At that moment, I thought of my childhood: Maybe he needs some dancing.
I quickly huddled with his mom. I turned on some music on my phone—MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This.” I started dancing.
And he started laughing.
“Elias, get up and dance with me,” I said. At first, he hesitated. “Aw, do we have to?” Then he got up and danced, laughing the whole time for about 60 seconds. His mom filmed it. Elias gave me the thumbs-up. We were now best friends. It was night and day.
The change was a revelation. If I can do this with him, I can do this with any patient! There’s no downside. The patient gets active, gets happy, gets back to the innocence of being a child. The mood changes; they don’t want to bolt out the door anymore. And I get to check their neurological function—if they can coordinate their arms and legs.
Next was Christa Saul, a spinal muscular atrophy patient. Seeing Elias’ video online, she said, “I want one, too.” Using a wheelchair, she couldn’t dance. So she watched me dance to “Super Freak” by Rick James, moving only her facial muscles but having the greatest time. Her mom put the video on the Anaheim Buzz Facebook page, and it spread like wildfire.
Then came Avery Rogers, a brain-surgery patient who came to appointments in a ballet costume. When she came in for her one-year checkup, she did a ballerina twirl to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling.” Her mom started crying. Avery hadn’t been able to do that before.
The media noticed. Stories appeared. “ABC World News Tonight.” “Good Morning America.”
Twenty to 60 seconds is not a lot of time, but it pays off. A lot of kids and parents now look forward to it. I saw a video of an ICU fellow dancing with a patient at a different hospital. It’s not rewriting the rulebook of patient-doctor relationships. It’s just another tool we can use.
Some people call me a modern-day Patch Adams. I don’t care what you call me. All I know is that my primary focus is making sure the little ones are more comfortable. A little laughter works every time.