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- November 27, 1978
- Vol. 10
- No. 22
When Medicine Can't Help, Dr. Jampolsky Teaches Sick Kids to Face the Idea of Death
The 8-year-old boy sits, unmoving, until Dr. Gerald Jampolsky beckons him onto his knee and helps him draw a circle with a downturned mouth, indicating anger. Kenny studies it briefly, then draws another circle. Inside it is an upturned, smiling mouth—forgiveness.
Nine children from 7 to 19 are attending the therapy session at Dr. Jampolsky's Center for Attitudinal Healing in Tiburon, Calif. All of them are suffering from either life-threatening disease (usually cancer) or traumatic accidents. They, and often their parents and siblings, talk openly about pain and death.
Jampolsky founded the center in 1975 with his own money and later received individual contributions and foundation grants. About 40 children visit twice a month. He and a staff of 14, only two of whom are paid, use games, psychodrama, art and biofeedback. (A sample technique: Tell the children to imagine they're attaching their troubles to a balloon and watch it float away.) Thus helped to cope with their disease, many of the patients become as high-spirited as the healthiest boy or girl.
"Children," Jampolsky, 53, observes, "seem more capable than adults of facing their fate heroically. They quickly learn to help one another overcome pain and defeat, sometimes healing themselves in the process."
The program, he says, "is a form of spiritual psychotherapy. It's not biblical. It has to do with peace of mind and elimination of fear. Basically, what it teaches is: 'Be a love giver, not a love seeker.' "
Jampolsky has won the respect of, among others, Dr. Harry Jennison, executive director of Stanford University's Children's Hospital. "You're not dealing with a flaky guy," Jennison says. "He has a fine track record. It's impossible to evaluate his program in terms of a systematic study of outcomes, but I'm open to any technique if it helps the catastrophically ill, whether adults or children."
A graphic result of Jampolsky's technique is a book written and illustrated by 11 of his young patients, There Is a Rainbow behind Every Dark Cloud. Chapter headings tell the story: "Before We Got Sick." "Seeing the Doctor for the First Time." "Hearing the News." "Homecoming." "Going Back to School." "Talking about Death Can Help."
One contributor, Greg Harrison, died of leukemia at 11 before the book was published last September. The other children visited him in his last days but Jampolsky says, "It didn't upset them. They don't see death as the end of the line."
Jampolsky was raised in Long Beach, Calif., the youngest of three sons (all now doctors) of a fruit store owner who had emigrated from Russia. "I had a painful childhood," he remembers. "My brothers were both smarter than I was. I had a reading problem, and I got bad grades." But he made it through premed, excelled in psychology and anatomy, and eventually topped his class at Stanford in the tough internship exams.
He began studying the psychology of severe illness while interning in Boston in 1949. "Every doctor," he says, "knows in his heart that the will to live can affect the course of an illness. But it can't be put under a microscope." He later had a fellowship in child psychiatry at the University of California's Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute and built the private practice he still maintains in Tiburon. He first took special interest in critically ill children in 1963 when a friend asked him to help her leukemia-ridden son.
Divorced five years ago after a 20-year marriage, Jampolsky has two grown sons he is still close to. At the time of the breakup, he admits, he had a serious drinking problem. "I was treating alcoholics in those days," he says, "and the police were stopping me and taking me home." Now he limits himself to a couple of glasses of white wine with dinner.
Of his work with the kids, Jampolsky says, "I have a great sense of joy in what I'm doing." One reason is patients like Keith Miller, 7, who—like many cancer patients—was suffering severe hair loss due to chemotherapy. He was quite embarrassed until other children at the center told him they had faced the same problem and the hair had grown back. Keith thought about it for a while, then shrugged cheerfully and said, "Okay. I'll just tell the kids at school who tease me that I'm Kojak and give them my autograph."
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