Pediatric cancer patients pretend to be pirates as they set sail to thank TGH staff

Pediatric cancer patients pretend to be pirates as they set sail to thank TGH staff

On Sunday, dozens of boats took to the waterways outside Tampa General Hospital to bring a bit of joy to kids battling cancer and the medical professionals looking after them.

September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Each day an estimated 47 children in the U.S. learn they have cancer, a diagnosis that often drastically changes a child’s life. Many pediatric cancer patients are unable to attend school or play with friends because of the risk of infection.

Plant High School sophomore Jake Klopfenstein has seen firsthand how lonely life can become for these kids. After losing a friend to pediatric Ewing sarcoma, he started the nonprofit Anglers for Relief in an effort to connect with young cancer patients.

“Fishing is my passion. As soon as I get on the boat, I forget about everything. That’s kind of how I got over Ryan’s death,” stated Klopfenstein, whose friend, Ryan Baker, passed away in 2014 after an 18-month battle with cancer.

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Klopfenstein now shares his love of fishing with other pediatric cancer patients. He donates “dry-fishing kits” and teaches children how to fish from their hospital beds or homes.

Klopfenstein says he spends hours with patients teaching them how to tie knots, cast and identify different types of fish. When healthy enough, he organizes fishing outings for kids and their families.

“I just want to make these kids feel like they don’t have cancer, even if it’s just for an hour or two,” explained Klopfenstein.

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But COVID-19 has made things even harder on the children he wants to help. The pandemic has canceled countless support programs, cutoff visitation and has left many immunocompromised children feeling more isolated than ever.

Klopfenstein says he’s finding new ways to adapt and continue on in his mission. He brings patients and their families who are able on smaller, socially distanced outings. He’s also teamed up with the 1Voice Foundation, which provides services and programs to Bay Area pediatric cancer patients, funds a pediatric cancer research lab, and launched the first school for children with cancer this spring.

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“Normally we take children to the Gasparilla parade, but it was canceled this year,” said 1Voice Foundation Executive Director Mary Ann Massolio. “So we thought why don’t we do a flotilla and that would be a way to social distance.”

Dozens of families with pediatric cancer patients sailed to Tampa General Hospital aboard the Lost Pearl pirate ship along with a flotilla of smaller boats.

“I just want them to forget and feel a lot better than for themselves and not think of themselves as a cancer patient just think of themselves as a normal kid having fun on the water,” said Klopfenstein.