Before we get to David Horton the patient, let’s talk about David Horton the little boy. Because for those who knew him best and loved him most, that’s who he was.
He was the little kid who loved basketball, spending hours at the outside hoop his dad nailed to a tree, where the boy pretended to be Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, the sharp-shooting New York Knick, the all-star guard he adored.
He was the baby of the family, the kid who went off to Riverside Elementary School in Princeton, N.J., despite chronic pain in his forehead, a medical storm cloud that shadowed him all of his life.
He came home to play kick the can or to watch the old black-and-white Superman series on TV, the one starring George Reeves as the man of steel who was faster than a speeding bullet.
“He had this little chair, and he used to drag it into my bedroom and sit and read his books,’’ recalled his sister Elizabeth, four years his senior. “He had an attitude of ‘I’m not special in any way.’ It didn’t occur to him to take the day off from school. But I can remember him coming home and lying on the floor with severe headaches.’’
His mother sensed something was wrong from the beginning. At first, the doctors told her she was overly anxious. Relax, they told her. But she knew. David staggered one day and fell against a coffee table. He was just 3 when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, a life-threatening condition that led him to Boston Children’s Hospital — and, later, to its Prouty Garden which became a family oasis.
Before his death at age 12, David Horton endured 13 operations, some of them up to 10 hours long. While medical wizards worked to save him, his siblings rode the elevators at a nearby hotel and ran unsupervised through hospital hallways.
The only place the Hortons could be together as a family, the only place where his parents and his three older siblings could sit and run and play with him, was in the Prouty Garden, a 23,000-square-foot jewel tucked up and away from the bustle of Longwood Avenue — a verdant place of quiet nooks, decorative fountains, and a majestic dawn redwood tree.
“It was the only place in the hospital where you could breathe fresh air and get outside,’’ Elizabeth Richter, David’s sister, told me. “And it was the only way we could see David. We’d spend hours there.’’
When David finally succumbed to his brain tumor just before his 13th birthday in 1973, his family decided the garden would be his final resting place.
But first, they wrapped him in a blanket, placed him the backseat of a Volkswagen Beetle, and drove through a snowstorm from New Jersey to Boston for an autopsy. “My parents hoped something could be learned for the future treatment of kids with similar condition,’’ Richter said. “They were determined to do that. They wanted his life and death to be a benefit to others.’’
And then they wanted peace for their son. David was cremated, and on a cold February evening, the Horton family assembled for the last time in the garden David loved.
“The snow was flying and there was a glaze on the ground,’’ his sister recalled. “My brother and sister flew in to Boston. It was dark. And we scattered his ashes in the Prouty Garden. We did it together.’’
The death of a child is a loss beyond words. Elizabeth Richter said it is no exaggeration to say that David’s death broke something deep inside her parents. They never fully recovered. Before their deaths, they returned every year to pay tribute to their son in Prouty Garden. Richter, too, makes that pilgrimage each year.
And so the news that Children’s Hospital wants to destroy that garden to make way for more private rooms, a heart center, and a new neonatal intensive care unit has been especially wounding for her and her siblings.
Just inside the garden, they remember a plaque and its promise. “Because of Mrs. Prouty’s vision, this garden will exist as long as Children’s Hospital has patients, families, and staff to enjoy it,’’ it read.
Richter believed those words. So did her parents. “We as a family would never have considered doing that if there wasn’t a sign that said we are going to preserve this garden in perpetuity,’’ she said. “We had every reason to believe that this garden would be protected and preserved.’’
Not anymore. Hospital administrators say they need to build over the garden to keep pace with the number and complexity of the children who need their care.
As I have written before, the hospital has constructed this false choice: You can either have the garden, or you can have clinical space where we will continue to save children.
There is a public hearing on the proposal on Thursday at which the hospital will doubtlessly repeat a version of that argument to officials from the state Department of Public Health, whose authorization it needs to proceed.
We know how much it will cost to bulldoze the Prouty Garden so Children’s Hospital can construct its new building on top of it.
But how do you put a price tag on a place where two generations of sick children escaped their hospital beds to chase rabbits across the green lawn, to sit in the shade of a redwood tree, to laugh under a warm sun as the water from fanciful fountains splashed in the summer wind?
How can state officials calculate the worth of the land consecrated with the ashes of David Horton? How can Boston Children’s Hospital assess the cost of abandoning its promise — made 60 years ago — that the Prouty Garden would be a refuge for its little patients for as long as the hospital was working to heal them?
How can anyone place a value on something like that? They can’t. It’s immeasurable.
Immeasurable. It’s a good word for the loss that will be absorbed if bulldozers are allowed to plow under David Horton’s final resting place.Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.