Mack and Payson know of a hidden spot behind the elevators on the seventh floor of Phoenix Children’s Hospital. It has big windows granting a peek at the outside world: cars, palm trees, a blue sky.
The toddlers discovered the little nook when they were at the hospital receiving treatment for cancer—Mack for anaplastic large cell lymphoma, Payson for B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. They immediately deemed it their hideaway.
After all, best friends do need a secret clubhouse.
“They were just being 3-year-olds,” laughs Dani. “Three-year-olds having fun, their moms hurrying behind them with IV poles.”Dani, Mack’s Mom
An instant connection
“They hit it off right away,” recalls Traci, Payson’s mother.
Mack’s mom, Dani, remembers that she and Mack were in his hospital room. It had been a rough week and Mack wasn’t up for doing much. Then a tiny girl strutted by the open door, balloons trailing behind her.
Says Dani, “She was just a peanut, so small! And she was sassy, waving at everybody. I asked if it was her birthday. Her mom said, ‘No. She just wanted a parade.’ I thought, ‘That’s Mack’s kind of girl.’”
Later that afternoon, Dani spotted Payson and Traci again. This time, she introduced herself and asked if they’d like to join her and Mack for a stroll around the floor. Because of COVID, the playroom was closed, leaving many patients craving interaction with other kids.
Mother and daughter happily agreed. And so Mack and Payson set off on a walk—the first of many—pretending to be zombies and scaring the nurses.
“They were just being 3-year-olds,” laughs Dani. “Three-year-olds having fun, their moms hurrying behind them with IV poles.”
Mack is the youngest of four children and Payson is an only child, birth-order positions that give the toddlers outgoing personalities and outsized vocabularies.
“They’d have these funny conversations that you’d never think 3-year-olds would have,” remembers Dani.
Traci adds, “Payson has the sense of humor of an adult. And Mack is this old soul.”
Mack loved wearing a fake mustache and calling himself Uncle Buddha to make the nurses laugh. He’s a jokester who loves Captain America and blue cake pops and dancing—a skill taught to him by his older sisters. Payson loves Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, pasta for breakfast and dressing herself in an eclectic style all her own.
Together, they introduced each other to new toys—dolls, dinosaurs, Peppa Pig—and games, such as setting up a pretend grill to host a “tailgate” for the nurses.
But it was more than just a shared love of mischief and play that bonded these little souls.
Says Dani, “Mack hadn’t met another kid in his same circumstances, and the first thing he said when he met Payson was, ‘Mom, she has the same haircut as me.’ I didn’t even realize that was something that mattered to him.
“Mack knows what Payson’s going through and she knows what he’s going through. There’s a genuine empathy for each other. At 3 years old, they shouldn’t have had to develop that, but they did.”
“Mack knows what Payson’s going through and she knows what he’s going through. There’s a genuine empathy for each other. At 3 years old, they shouldn’t have had to develop that, but they did.”Dani, Mack’s Mom
Remission and reunion
Payson and Mack finished their cancer treatments and returned home.
“Payson asked about Mack all the time,” Traci says. “They formed a very special bond, so Dani and I always intended to get them together again.”
That day came late July 2021. The kids had not seen each other in two months. In a video that’s since gone viral, including a feature on the nationally televised program “TODAY’S Morning Boost,” the pair—each in remission—reunited.
The iPhone video captures Payson, decked out in her party dress, standing on the sidewalk outside her house as Mack runs up armed with a bouquet of flowers he selected just for her. The two embrace. Then they promptly head inside to play Peppa Pig and dance in the kitchen.
“Payson and Mack have been through so much at such a young age, and their ability to roll with it, spreading love and kindness, is inspiring,” says Traci.
Both children are now in preschool. They FaceTime regularly, and recently Mack celebrated Payson’s fourth birthday at her Ninja Turtles–themed pool party.
Because of the national attention the reunion video received, Traci and Dani set up a donation page through Phoenix Children’s Hospital Foundation for people to support other children with cancer.
“It’s healing for Payson and Mack to have this friendship,” says Dani. “And if their friendship inspires one person to donate to childhood cancer, that’s amazing.”