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2 Boys In Hospital Isolation Forge A Bond Over Legos


Some people want to change the world. Ki-Jana Upshaw tries to change one life at a time. He's a janitorial employee at Cincinnati Children's Hospital.

KI-JANA UPSHAW: I know how to scrub a floor, wax a floor, buff the floor. When patients go home, isolation rooms - I have to put up new curtains for new patients coming in.

MARTIN: Around the hospital, he's known as KJ. He works in the bone marrow transplant unit. Part of his job is collecting patients' linens.


So he's one of the few people allowed into isolation wards holding kids getting bone marrow transplants. They have weak immune systems. KJ goes from room to room - 82 of them - grabbing laundry bags and connecting with kids like Cohen Bramlee.

UPSHAW: Cohen doesn't like to be around, like, all the doctors and stuff like that. So they tell me that they use me to get Cohen going. Before I walked in the room, Cohen's like, oh, KJ's here, KJ's here. Like, his whole mood would just change. And I'm the same way. You know, every time I walked in his room, I was always in a good mood.

CARRIE BRAMLEE: Cohen is my youngest, and he has a disease that's so rare that he is actually the first person that they've ever documented with this disease before.

INSKEEP: Carrie Bramlee is Cohen's mom. We reached her on Skype in Cincinnati.

MARTIN: Cohen's bone marrow transplant was in September. It's an experimental treatment for a nameless disease. His digestion, his immune system, his liver - they're all affected, which is why Cohen plays with Legos.

BRAMLEE: He's never been able to tolerate eating food, so he's required to have a permanent IV catheter in his chest. So Legos have always been a huge part of his life because while other people are eating, he's building Legos to kind of give him a distraction from what's happening around him so that he doesn't miss out on it.

UPSHAW: And I kept seeing that he built Legos, and I kept realizing that once I left his room, right next door, there was another kid with Legos.

INSKEEP: Two boys, same bone marrow transplant unit, both loved Legos, so KJ got thinking.

UPSHAW: Man, like, you guys are, like, really across the hall from each other, you know, isolated and you don't even know that - you know, you got a best friend next door and don't even know it.

INSKEEP: KJ told the kids about each other and forged a friendship by swapping messages and communicating between them about their Lego creations. On the same day the other boy Keagan was discharged, Cohen was strong enough to step outside his room. The kids met in person and now have a sort of exchange. When Keagan comes back for checkups, they leave Legos for each other.

MARTIN: Carrie Bramlee says she's grateful for all her son's caregivers and particularly KJ, who would always ask how Cohen was feeling.

BRAMLEE: He became a friend in a situation where Cohen wasn't able to even have siblings around. And it just became a great spot in his day to the point where Cohen would say, I really need to make my linens dirtier so KJ can come back more often (laughter).

MARTIN: She says once Cohen gets a little bit healthier, she's hoping to get him and his new friend Keagan together for probably a Lego playdate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.