Amy Westfall, OTD, OTRL, has been an occupational therapist for more than six years at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where she works with pediatric oncology patients. Westfall came to St. Louis from her home in Wyoming to attend graduate school at Washington University. Since starting her career at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, she has come to call St. Louis home and loves her job and her patients. Although many of her patients have made a difference in her life, one little boy and his family have found a permanent place in her heart. Garrett, 7, was diagnosed with two different brain tumors at 8 months of age. He has faced many challenges over the years but today attends school and visits St. Louis Children’s Hospital every week for physical and occupational therapy.
I met Garrett about five years ago when he started coming to the hospital for outpatient therapy. I fondly remember him coming down the hallway of Therapy Services calling out “Mamie, where are you?” because he couldn’t quite say “Amy.” Garrett is a remarkable child with an effervescent personality. Each day we work together is an adventure with plenty of surprises; he never stops amazing me.
Garrett’s brain tumors were difficult to treat. He required brain surgery to remove the tumors, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. He also eventually underwent an autologous bone marrow transplant in 2007. As a result of his diagnosis and medical treatment, he developed a left hemiparesis, which makes it difficult for him to use his left arm and leg in a typical manner. In OT, we focus on improving the functional use of his left upper extremity, while PT primarily addresses his lower extremity strength and functional mobility.
Garrett is a kiddo with a great deal of spunk. He is imaginative, playful and his enthusiasm is contagious. Working with Garrett has also allowed me the privilege of getting to know his family, who are an essential part of his rehabilitation care team. Garrett is an only child and has two loving parents who are committed advocates, enthusiastic cheerleaders and dedicated role models for their son. His mom and dad support him through all of his challenges and are there with hugs and proud smiles for each of his achievements. In fact, they are so dedicated to Garrett that they made the decision to move their family from Springfield, Mo., to St. Louis in order to have more direct access to the medical and rehabilitation teams at our hospital.
When I think of Garrett, I think of the Energizer Bunny because his energy never seems to deplete. Similarly, his joy and curiosity are contagious. He is a courageous and outstanding kid who has defied the odds by fighting fight after fight. He has encountered many challenges in his short life, and yet he has handled them all with a tenacious spirit, attacking whatever was thrown at him without really knowing what he was up against. I simply adore him, and am so very proud of all he has accomplished in his seven years.
I think the SLCH oncology program is one of the best in the world, and I am honored to work with such talented physicians and nurses who value those of us in ancillary roles. And working with these children has been incredibly rewarding. I always knew I would love working with these kids and their families, but I didn’t realize how many life lessons they would teach me along the way. I took this job wanting to help children find a way back to living their life after a diagnosis of cancer, and instead, they have helped me find another deep layer of meaning for my life. When I share what I do for a living with others, I often hear a response similar to, “Gosh, that’s so sad. It must be really difficult to work with sick kids.” My reply is always the same, “Yes, some days are difficult and very sad, but most of them are joyful and full of fun, laughter and celebration.” What many people may not understand is that the children I work with are fighters…survivors…warriors. They are also teachers, counselors and therapists in their own special way; teaching me about the importance of love and family, counseling friends and family through their fears, and working with medical professionals to identify ways to overcome barriers in their life so that they can “just be a kid.” They are stronger than most adults I know and definitely more courageous than I could ever dream of being.
Working with these kids is the very reason I was put on this Earth and I hope I’m lucky enough to do this for decades to come. My dream is to be here long enough that I get to see my patients come back to visit before their prom, or stop by to show us wedding photos or pictures of their first born child. Those are the moments I’m working to help them experience… we are a team, working together for their future.