Old-school Britney Spears tunes blast from the speakers in Marnie's Lounge, where teens come to be made beautiful for prom night. Scattered tables are tiled with palettes upon palettes of Mac makeup, while others are piled high with glittery clutches, scarves, bracelets and other jewelry.
It's all part of a ritual familiar to many girls _ but this one is being held at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, which wants to make sure patients like Courtney don't miss out, no matter how ill they are. The hospital recently held its fourth annual prom party _ a hit with both kids and parents.
Courtney has been a patient at the hospital since she was two, when she was diagnosed with sacral agenesis, an uncommon condition akin to spina bifida.
"When I was around two, they were trying to do surgeries to break my legs to try to straighten them, but it never worked. And when I turned nine, they were going to amputate my legs so I could get prosthetics.
"They said it was my choice, and I said yes even though it was really, really scary."
Courtney’s mother, Julie Gibson, begins to tear up when asked why the prom is important.
“She’s happy. She’s smiling. She hadn’t smiled in, like, a year. This is letting her be a kid, and not have to worry about all the medical problems for once.”
Now, 15-year-old Courtney gets around with the aid of her prosthetics, or her wheelchair.
But on prom night, Gibson said the teenaged patients at SickKids weren’t thinking about their illnesses. They were thinking about getting dressed up and partying.
Karima Karmali is the director of the SickKids Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Child and Family Centred Care. She said it's important for teens not to miss out on milestones like prom just because they're sick.
"Many children who are ill may not be able to go to events in the community. They may not be able to participate in prom at their own school. This is a way for us to really bring some normalacy to the lives of children and teens here at SickKids."
The event is truly a prom party. The guys wear ties, the girls wear heels. There's dancing to 90s pop bands and, of course, lots of Justin Bieber.
"This is my favourite song!" Courtney says as "Boyfriend" starts playing.
And the music isn't just coming from a stereo system—Alex Salmon, aka DJ Skinnzy, presides over the turntable. He has spina bifida, and he's been a patient in the past. He has always been into music, but he says the event is more about the other guests than it is about him.
"It's mostly about helping children have fun," the 15-year-old says.
The idea to hold a prom partially originated with teens on an advisory council at SickKids, who speak up when they feel certain programming should be in place.
Courtney makes a point of speaking up, too. Despite having to spend so much time in the hospital—she had a 104-day stint there this past winter to address a serious kidney failure—she goes after what she wants.
"I am obsessed with Justin Bieber," she says. She's tried to meet him through the Make a Wish Foundation, but she was told it might take up to two years. She was unimpressed.
"They said that if I waited for him, he could do a whole bunch of people at a time, but then I could only meet him for like five minutes." She shakes her head disgustedly, clearly needing far more of the Beebs than that. "I was like 'No? I don’t think so."
Fourteen-year-old Kayla Baker's sunny disposition hasn't been dampened by her frequent hospital visits, either. She doesn't like to focus on the negative, and instead, she greets new people with a smile and a card for beadonor.ca.
"I hand out the cards to bring awareness to people if they want to donate, or they can learn how to donate," she says.
When she was a baby, Kayla was diagnosed with cancer, and the chemotherapy caused pulmonary fibrosis. Now, she comes in to the hospital for treatment every three days, and she wears an oxygen tube to keep her lungs working while she waits for a double-lung transplant.
Kayla says that for her, the purpose of the night was just to "get out there and have fun."
Although the prom is popular at SickKids with 80 teens attending this year, the trend hasn't spread to other children's hospitals in the country. The B.C. Children's Hospital doesn't have the teenage patient base to host that kind of event, and neither does the IWK Health Centre in Halifax.
Both the IWK and the Montreal Children's Hospital try to discharge patients so they can attend events at their own schools.
Back in Toronto, Courtney and Kayla both await further operations.
"They said that it could take up to two years, so we're just waiting here," Kayla says patiently.