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May 25, 2019

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These Las Vegas superheroes offer ailing kids an escape from their suffering

Critical Care Comics at UMC's Children's Hospital

Christopher DeVargas

Critical Care Comics’ Michael Mutzhause, as Spiderman, gives a high-five to Sami, 9, as he and other friendly superheroes deliver comic books and toys to kids at UMC’s Children’s Hospital, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018.

Critical Care Comics at UMC's Children's Hospital

Critical Care Comics' Michael Mutzhause, as Spiderman, gives a high-five to Sami, 9, as he and other friendly superheroes deliver comic books and toys to kids at UMC's Children's Hospital, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018. Launch slideshow »

A cape dangles behind a towering figure donned in black leather that strolls the narrow hospital hallway. From a cradle in a low-lit room, an enthusiastic tiny voice blurts out, “Maman!”

The young boy’s eyes are focused on a Batman with a pointy-eared mask, who — alongside Batwoman, Spiderman and The Flash — is on a joyous mission at University Medical Center’s children’s ward.

Out of costume and mostly out of sight, Jason Golden trails the group. He pulls a green cart crammed with comic books and plush toys.

Golden, a 42-year-old cancer survivor, attentively listens to the young patients’ answers expressing their favorite superheroes. He then meticulously flips through the plastic-wrapped collection, choosing the kids’ literary “poison.”

Though Golden operates in the background, at times handing tissues to the overheated actors, this alliance of superhero characters, “Critical Care Comics,” is his brainchild. Created six years ago, the organization aims to provide distractions to ailing children through action-packed fiction. It gained official nonprofit status in 2015.

“If they dig those books and it pulls them out of whatever they’re going through for just 10 minutes, I did my job,” he said during the visit.

The wide-smiled actors thoroughly embodied their characters as they chatted with the young patients and teased each other.

Cloaked in a red-and-blue-patterned outfit and at one point crouched in a Spiderman stance, 26-year-old Michael Mutzhaus asked Sami if he knew who they were.

Sami, a 9-year-old with an elbow injury who lay in bed, did.

“Do you guys have a favorite superhero? It doesn’t have to be one of us,” Lexi Kreuz told Sami and a young family member.

“Don’t even!” the 27-year-old pink-wig wearing Batwoman quipped at Mutzhaus, who’d begun to motion at himself. “Sit down, Spiderman!”

When Sami ultimately picked Spiderman, Kreuz playfully taunted him, “Out of all of them. Are you sure?”

“We’re gonna get some goods so you can stay busy here,” she said.

Golden handed Mutzhaus a collection of Spiderman books, which he then placed on Sami’s bed before the team moved on to the next room.

“When they came, it surprised me,” Sami said over the phone days later. “It made me real happy that someone was there, because they wanted to put a smile on a kid’s face. I really loved the time there.”

Nearby, a young boy in the cradle clamored for Batman’s attention. The group had not been cleared to enter the room, so Tyler Moir could only wave from the hallway.

The pleas turned to cries of “Maman! Maman!” As the group walked away, Golden trailed behind, grabbed a plush toy, and left it in the room.

Agonizing life lessons

Golden’s project was influenced by his own experiences as a sick child. He successfully beat leukemia at a children’s hospital in Phoenix.

Back then, it was Golden who sat in the hospital bed as his mother delivered his favorite comics that kept him company through his painful ordeal while she was off to work.

“That’s what got me through it. That was my escape,” he said. “It sucks if you’re in there for an hour, or if you’re in there for a month.”

About the group

Critical Care Comics has more than 30 volunteers, six of whom are board members. It’s has a collection of more than 60,000 comic books, most of which were donated.

It has relationships with several Las Vegas-area hospitals and visits are regular. If requested, the volunteers also attend other children-oriented events.

The overhead costs are low, Golden said, noting that in the future the nonprofit hopes to eventually have a location to call home.

Golden switched careers from working in large-scale digital printing to driving for ride-sharing services. That way his schedule could provide flexibility to focus on the nonprofit’s work.

Lexi Kreuz, who’s known Golden for about 15 years, considers him “like a father figure,” she said. “He’s just so friendly and so welcoming. And he has so much knowledge of comics and all these characters.”

Critical Care Comics “feels just real family oriented,” she said. “I love it, I actually do.”

During an 18-month period, from diagnosis at age 15 until he was cured with an experimental treatment, his hospitalizations for chemotherapy would sometimes overlap with his scheduled two-day break at home.

He remembers moments when, while being a couple of blocks from the hospital, his parents would have to turn the car around because he suffered from nausea.

Other complications, such as infections, also would prolong his stays because leukemia-induced aches and its treatments weren’t “like stubbing your toe,” Golden said.

He described a constant discomfort, a burning sensation flowing in his veins, uncontrollable nausea, painful body-wide cramps, simply feeling “disgustingly ill.” Some days, he said, his limbs felt like they were being pulled off his torso.

Rarely would Golden share a room with another patient, which prompted loneliness. He would leave the door open, hoping someone would walk by and chat, he said. So, when his mother would deliver his paper happiness, it meant everything.

“I don’t remember big long chemical names of everything I got (while hospitalized), but I can tell you exactly what I was reading the day I got diagnosed (Spawn No. 1); the day I got my first spinal tap; the day I got my first bone marrow (transplant),” he said.

Golden, whose favorite superheroes are tattooed on his arms and legs, fondly remembers the glow in the dark, foil and pop out comic book covers from the '90s. “Oh yeah, I was all over it.”

“When you see the kids in here, and you’ll see them, especially the long-term patients … they’re little adults, they’ve grown up in here. They’ve learned bigger words than they ever thought of,” he said. “They know more about life and they’re more grateful about things than most people will by being in here.”

Sitting in a Las Vegas hospital lobby about six years ago while his wife underwent a procedure, the Maury Povich show played on TV, a half-dozen Hollywood-oriented magazines were scattered on a table. “This is crap,” he told himself.

That’s when a “lightbulb” came on and Critical Care Comics was first imagined.

“You know what would be really cool,” he thought. “If there were a stack of comic books here. Comic books are timeless. You can pick it up, you can be 10 years old … it’s just as relevant today as it was when it was written.”

A mother’s love

In a way, Critical Care Comics is an ode to Golden’s mother, who lost her own battle to cancer shortly before the nonprofit’s first hospital visit, and to others like her who make beds out of uncomfortable couches so they can be by their child’s side.

She did get to hear about his project, which made her happy, he said.

“I have a lot of respect for moms in the hospital,” Golden said, increasingly emotional. “If you go to any children wing (at night) you will see in every one of those kids’ bedrooms a parent staying the night.”

Chase Addison Cutler, who plays The Flash during hospital visits, lost his mother to cancer not long before joining the group several months ago. Since then, he said, “I couldn’t step foot inside a hospital without feelings and memories.”

But during his first visit to a hospital dressed as a character whose mother died in comic books, “there was no sick feeling.” He instead focused on the children’s smiles that he said helped him shake the discomfort. “Tunnel vision,” he described it.

“It was always the moms, worrying the entire time,” Golden said.

One time, Golden said, a woman with a comatose child encountered the group of superheroes in a hospital.

She asked Spiderman and Wonder Woman to come into the room, wishing their presence could snap the child out of it, Golden said. “You and I know the reality of that, but you can’t tell a mom ‘no.’”

Like that instance, Golden said, the visits can be emotionally taxing. “Dude, I’m so lucky to have a mask on,” a character has told him.

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