Earlier this summer, I had the privilege to talk with the founder of Nigel’s Neighborhood, Arnitra Smith, to learn more about how this CCF-funded local program came to be.

As with many such organizations, Nigel’s Neighborhood arose from a family’s devastating experience. Arnitra started Nigel’s Neighborhood after living through her own son’s cancer diagnosis. In January 2015, Arnitra took her 15-year-old son Nigel Bannister to the local Baltimore hospital ER after persistent flu-like symptoms of fever, chills and extreme fatigue. When the blood test indicated an extremely low blood count, the hospital immediately transferred him to Sinai, where he was soon diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML).

This diagnosis wasn’t just devastating news, it was an emergency. The doctors told the family that Nigel had to start chemotherapy immediately or he would die within the week. This news was all the more unbearable to Arnitra, as she had lost her first child to a medical malpractice event. The possibility of losing another child seemed completely unfathomable.

Thankfully, after intense inpatient chemotherapy for 28 weeks, Nigel went into remission in July 2015. Remission was short-lived as the cancer returned only two months later. This recurrent cancer was more aggressive, requiring further chemotherapy treatments. He was re-admitted to Sinai Hospital and remained there from October through December 2015.Nigel leaves the hospital

The family learned that the only chance for survival would be for a bone marrow transplant. Nigel’s much younger siblings, Ezra and Payton, were tested, but were not a match. After careful consideration, the family selected Duke University Hospital for the bone marrow transplant. Arnitra had to give up her job in the healthcare field to become Nigel’s full-time caregiver. Antonio, Nigel’s dad, remained employed in his teaching position with the Baltimore County Public School System. It was extremely difficult for the family during this frightening time. The family remained hopeful, relying on prayer to guide them.

The family moved to North Carolina with the hope that with an 80% chance of survival, this is where they needed to be. By this time, Nigel had lost his sight, endured sepsis and neutropenia.

Nigel received a double cord (non-related) bone marrow transplant in January 2016. Following the transplant, his health failed quickly with body pains, loss of appetite and high fevers. Through it all, Nigel remained a fighter, telling his family, “I’m going to beat this.” Six months after the transplant, Nigel was declared cancer free with 100% donor cells.

The family returned to Maryland in June 2016 but Nigel wasn’t out of the woods. He remained stable only with the help of many medicines.

All Nigel wanted to do is be a normal teen: go to school, play sports and drive a car. He missed so many milestones during his diagnoses and treatment. In 2017, Nigel’s senior year of high school, he begged his doctors to allow him to go to school. He promised to wear a mask, clean his desk, sit in the corner of the classroom and take the elevator. Despite all of these efforts, his port still became infected, requiring a hospital stay for 11 days.

Nigel’s personal struggle continually pained Arnitra. She was heartbroken not only for Nigel, but for all the young patients who were missing milestones, such as graduations, learning to drive and attending prom.

Arnitra conceived of the concept of “Nigel’s Neighborhood” to provide the prom experience for the sickest of kids. Nigel’s Neighborhood gives seriously ill young people a chance to “just be a normal kid.” In 2017, the first prom was held with attendees from Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, Georgetown, Children’s National and Sinai Hospital. The event was, and remains, free for all who attend.  Nigel’s Neighborhood is run exclusively by volunteers.

Support from The Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc. (CCF) helps fund an annual prom for local kids battling cancer, providing an evening where they can experience the joys of childhood, without feeling the constraint of their treatment. Funding also allows for parents as chaperones and medical professionals to be on site to ensure a safe evening for all of the kids.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Nigel’s Neighborhood has hosted virtual proms, when it was too risky to gather in person. As a result, Nigel’s Neighborhood was able to include kids outside of the Baltimore area. Arnitra shared with me that she feels that “CCF is a blessing. We could not do what we do without the generous support of The Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc.”

Arnitra’s kindness extended to CCF Board Member John Carver, who connected with the Green family starting in 2015 when their own daughter Juliana was fighting rhabdomyosarcoma. Arnitra delivered a meal to the Carvers the following year, shortly before Juliana’s tragic passing in October 2016. Arnitra then included the Carver family in the first Nigel’s Neighborhood prom in 2017, and honored Juliana with prom queen in September 2021.

As for Nigel– he is now 23 and returns to Sinai Hospital every six months for scans and appointments with Aziza Shad, M.D. Nigel is healthy and able to maintain a part-time job, but still suffers from latent effects from the chemotherapy, including memory loss and processing.

Research for less devastating and toxic treatments is critical for helping young people like Nigel have fewer long-term side effects. But for Arnitra, she recognizes the importance of lifting these young people up during an otherwise brutally challenging time. Offering that break can make an enormous difference in the lives of children battling cancer, and for their family. Laughter is indeed powerful medicine.

CCF is proud to partner with Nigel’s Neighborhood.

In partnership,

Tasha Museles
The Children’s Cancer Foundation, Inc.

UPDATE: Arnitra’s hope to have in-person proms again finally came to fruition. The 2022 event took place on Sunday, November 22nd at the National Aquarium. Nearly 40 kids and young adults attended, along with their families and friends. Promgoers enjoyed the sounds of DJ Scottie B, refreshments, raffle prizes and lots of dancing! Guests also enjoyed a tour of the Aquarium.

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