When I look back on some of my first hospital admissions, I associate them with some of the worst times of my life. At only 13, the anxiety and depression that I had merely just faced before engulfed me and became almost impossible to ignore. The worst of those memories? How alone I felt. I have two younger sisters, so once I became accustomed to hospital life my parents weren’t able to stay with me at night. And with work during the day, our visits were just visits, and I was alone many days and nights. Don’t get me wrong, I understand. I understand my parents did and are doing the very best they can to keep our family afloat, and that meant dividing their time between me in the hospital and work. Despite having an incredible support team, I did spend many days alone and relied on the resources and people in the hospital to keep me smiling and feeling safe.

There was one night that I was lying in bed during a long admission, and it was just after my mom had left that I broke down in tears (as I usually do). I cried and cried, and for some reason, I couldn’t stop. The silence of my quiet, dark and empty room was so overwhelmingly loud and prevalent. I cried because I hated feeling alone. I was anxious and afraid, I yearned for home, I knew a discharge wasn’t in the near future and I just wept. That night I was so fed up with the reality I was forced to live and couldn’t change. I had two choices: to give up or give back. I could let the depression consume me, I could let the pain overtake me and I could let the exhaustion silence me. Or I could fight like hell to make sure no child ever had to lie in a hospital bed and cry for the reasons that I did. I’m sure you can assume which one I chose.

By deciding to give back, I have a reason to keep going. I’ve met so many kids with stories and hearts beyond their years. Over the years I have made connections with patients and their parents via social media, and I’ve attempted to create a movement that I still haven’t named. It comes with the promise of the company of not another nurse, doctor, family member or volunteer, but the promise of a friend who can understand what it’s like to lie in that hospital bed. It’s the promise of time spent with someone who won’t be intimidated by their reality or surroundings, it’s the promise of comfort in the form of a cozy blanket or a snuggle and it’s the promise of laughter through movies or conversation.

For parents, it’s the promise of someone to love their children and understand their reality, it’s the promise of comfort that they can run down for a coffee or head home to be with their other children, it’s the promise of assurance and reassurance and it’s the promise of understanding and companionship.

For me, it’s the promise of a reason to get through every bad day and appreciate every good day, the promise of a reason to smile and persevere and the promise of a love that is a profound gift to give and receive.

I know that so long as I have those beautiful hearts to love, I will always have a reason to fight. I will always have a reason to persevere. It’s funny because I always thought that by giving back I would be helping others, but it has also helped me so much more than I can even begin to explain and more than I could have ever anticipated.

The promise that I made that night lying in my hospital bed was the beginning of a new era — a newfound love and appreciation for life, a different sense of gratitude, a deeper meaning to my purpose and a profound healing that has brought more restoration and relief than any medication or doctor could offer. My illnesses have altered and taken away so much of the way life used to be for me, but they will never take away my drive, love and ability to give back. So long as another child fights a battle they shouldn’t have, my heart and arms will always be open to them.

In all of these years of being sick, I’ve learned many lessons, but I had no idea that the greatest lesson I could learn was within myself — through the magnitude of the love and desire in my heart and the power of two open arms.