“They ride tricycles in the hallway, not in the park. They know the names of treatments instead of their classmates. Their central lines have names. Nurses and doctors are their new family. They think hair is overrated. Their laughter can make a heart melt. Their strength will make a grown person cry. If you have ever seen a child fight cancer, it will change your life forever!”
My alarm goes off at 5:10am, and I slowly drag myself out of bed. It’s time for another day of work at the hardest job I’ll ever love because I’m a Pediatric Cancer Nurse.
As soon as I’m up and around, my mind is filled with anxiety. I’ve had a few days off of work so I’m not sure how the unit has been lately. I start to worry that I’ll have a terribly hard assignment or that I’ll end up losing one of my favorite patients.
Still, I push through the worry and get ready to go.
On the drive to the Children’s Hospital I listen to my favorite Christian radio station, trying to get some motivation and encouragement for what is undoubtedly going to be a tough day.
There’s never an easy day as a Pediatric Cancer Nurse.
I pull up to the hospital, and my anxiety starts to quickly climb. I park my car in my favorite parking spot, grab my bag and head inside. I walk to the other side of the hospital, and as I start to near my unit my fear reaches an uncomfortable level as I wonder what assignment I’ve been given today.
I’m scared that I’ll be taking care of the dying child or maybe even the difficult family. Will I get the kid who needs 5 chemo’s or the 3 year old patient who hates me and everyone around?
I start to wonder if I’ll be taking caring for one of my favorite patients or get a newly diagnosed patient. Will I have the uncooperative teenager who wants nothing to do with me or the family who frequently reassures me that I’m a great Nurse?
I think all of these things before it’s even 7am.
My heart races as I get report from the night nurse who’s obviously had a rough night. I find out there’s 2 end of life patients on the floor that could pass at any minute and 2 newly diagnosed patients whose families have a million questions (rightfully so).
You see, most people have this preconceived notion that, as nurses, we simply give meds and take vital signs. They have no clue what life looks like through our eyes, the eyes of a Pediatric Cancer Nurse.
I say “Pediatric CANCER Nurse” instead of Oncology because it makes it more real. Oncology is an elaborate way of saying the dreaded “C” word, the word that no one wants to hear.
I can only image that hearing “your child has cancer” is like stabbing someone with a knife and twisting it.
You see, the families and patients are the ones directly affected. Their lives are forever changed by those few short words. Parents bring their child to the hospital for a nosebleed only to find out that they have Leukemia.
Everything around them quickly changes, and they’re brought to the Hematology/Oncology unit where they’re given an enormous amount of information all while trying to process this life-altering news.
It has to be scary, overwhelming and painful to say the least.
And while the families and patients are the ones most affected, no one ever hears the experience from the Nurse’s point of view … until now.
You see, when a patient and family come in for the first time I’m terrified. I wonder if the family will like me, if we will get along or if the child will approve of me. I question if I’ll be able to help them process this terrifying news or if they’ll even let me in.
I become so attached to my patients that I can’t even explain the love I have for each of them. I would do anything to make them smile or to make them happy for even a mere second.
I’ve been a part of brutal nerf gun wars between patients and the nurses. I’ve pretended to be a princess, power ranger, dinosaur and race car driver. I’ve gotten down on all fours to play with my patients and let them squirt me with saline syringes just to get them to take their medications.
I’ve held patients as I rocked them to sleep, rubbed their backs when they were hurting and talked for hours on end about absolutely nothing at all. I’ve cried so many tears and shared so many laughs with them that I’ve lost count.
I’ve watched patients break out of the Bone Marrow Transplant unit and attended parties to celebrate the smallest of accomplishments. There’s no small wins in Pediatric Cancer.
I’ve seen the strongest children imaginable fighting a terrifying disease without any fear or worry. I’ve watched their hair fall out and their little bald heads emerge, and I’ve reassured them that bald is beautiful.
I’ve seen kids who were never supposed to make it beat the odds like it was nothing. Their courage constantly motivates and inspires me. If I’m having a bad day, all I have to do is see their face and instantly I am okay.
I’ve also watched patients dwindle away to nothing and held their hands as they slowly drifted off to a final sleep. I’ve sang songs to patients with tears streaming down my face as I watched them take their last breath.
I’ve held it together as I completed postmortem care and completely broke down when I got to my car. Somehow I learned to keep it all inside until I was alone, and then the floodgates break.
I’ve cried with families and hugged them for hours on end, just letting them know I was there. I’ve attended too many funerals and spoke of my favorite memories of past patients with my co-workers and families.
You see, being a Pediatric Cancer Nurse has changed me forever. It has shown me that life truly is short and that time is precious. It has reminded me that things can always be worse and that life is beautiful.
I started to see life through a totally different perspective, and I still carry each patient that I lost with me in my heart. I can tell you every name of every patient I’ve been close to. I can remember how they took their meds, their favorite TV show and what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Being a Pediatric Cancer Nurse opened my eyes to the big picture in life. As I watch my patients battle a tough opponent without fear, I am constantly reminded to be strong, resilient and unwavering in my faith.
As Pediatric Cancer Nurses we love hard, we celebrate big and we try our best to bring a glimmer of light in some of the darkest times. It’s a privilege to be able to do what we do, to hold the hand of a dying child and to celebrate the victory of another.
We comfort the grieving and celebrate the ones who beat the odds. We remember those whom we’ve lost, and we look forward to visits from those who are now cancer free.
I’m forever grateful for the perspective I was given by choosing Pediatric Cancer Nurse as a career. No one will ever understand how or why we do what we do, and that’s okay. It’s not meant for anyone else to comprehend.
This job is a calling, these patients are unforgettable, these families are remarkable and these memories are ones that I will cherish forever.
** September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Childhood Cancer only receives 4% of the national budget from the National Cancer Institute. Our kids deserve MORE. This month be sure to #GoGold for Childhood Cancer Awareness and spread the word. Check out http://www.EraseKidCancer.org for more ways you can help! **