Jennifer Wofford works as a pediatric nurse practitioner for the divisions of hematology and oncology with Washington University School of Medicine at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. She received her Bachelors of Science, Nursing degree in 2003 from St. Louis University. After working with pediatric cancer patients for four years, she shifted to nursing in the emergency unit. When she received her master’s from the University of Missouri St. Louis in 2009, though, Jennifer knew she wanted to dedicate her career to working with children with cancer. She joined Children’s shortly thereafter, working both directly with patients and in clinical research at Wash U. She serves as the member at large and on the steering committee of the Children’s Oncology Group (COG), the world’s largest organization devoted exclusively to pediatric cancer research. Jenn says a number of families have impacted her career and her life, so as we head into September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, she talks to From the Bedside about two of the most recent.
My passion for hematology/oncology goes back to my childhood. When I was 7 years old, I had a tumor. I was treated at Children’s, and while I was here, I told my mom, “I want to grow up to be a nurse at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.” I think my mom reacted like any mother does to the career ambitions of a 7-year-old. It was my version of saying, “I want to grow up to be a ballerina.” I think she thought it would pass. But I knew then I not only wanted to grow up to be a nurse, but a nurse for kids with cancer. I was lucky that my tumor wasn’t cancerous, and they were just able to surgically resect it. But from that experience, I knew I could relate with these families.
Having been in this field for a few years now, I’ve heard the phrase, “I can’t believe you do pediatric oncology!” more times than I can count. But I find it so reassuring to work in a field where I can respond with facts like, “95% of certain types of leukemia are curable.” So few people realize the hope we see each day. I love being a part of that process. I love being able to know that every two weeks I’m going to see a patient. It’s unfortunate that they’re here for therapy, but then I get to look forward to the point where I see them every three months because they’re just here for follow-up. Then it’s every six months. Just yesterday, someone came up here to visit because they were getting ready to start college in a week. And I feel like that’s so rewarding. You don’t hear an orthopedic doctor say, “Oh, that mended broken leg, they came up to tell me they were going to prom last week,” or see a patient who was 6 months ago in the ICU and is now up here, getting ready to start 2nd grade next week. As hard and as challenging as it is sometimes, it would be a lie if I didn’t say it’s one of the most rewarding jobs ever.
It’s so hard to identify just one family or a single patient that has impacted my career and my life. I feel in so many ways, different families impact different facets. Every day, I encounter special circumstances. I have a very large population of teenage boys diagnosed around the same time. They were all on the same treatment schedule, and I just got to know their families so well. I feel like I have this bond with all of them. One has had a really rough go of it, and he’s been admitted now for what feels like months. I know Galen waits for me and hears my voice, and I see his head poke out in the hallway. Not once have I seen him with his spirits down about this. He’s had it harder than so many kids, but he has a smile on his face. He knows this is a challenge that he’s going to get over, and he’s ready to face it full on. It brings so many things in my own life into perspective. I don’t think any of us can say that life is 100% how we planned it or expected it, and not every day goes perfectly. But when you see things in the grand scheme, and look at challenges that could appear so insurmountable, it makes a lot of everyday problems seem like tiny little anthills.
Galen came in several weeks ago just very, very sick, and went to the ICU. At that moment, you are on the brink of, “This is as bad as it can get.” But he’s pulled through, and he’s up here on the floor smiling right now. It really does give me hope in a lot of different things. He’s an amazing, remarkable person. There’s a little girl down the hall right now, and I was talking to her yesterday. And Galen wanted to know why I didn’t come in to his room and talk to him like I did her, joking around. It’s just little things like that. To have a 4-year-old look at you and remind you, “I’m bald right now, but it’s going to grow back,” puts everything in perspective. When kids that are bald begin to look more normal than kids that have hair – I feel like I know this is my calling in life!
A few days ago, a patient who is 18 got a severe infection in her arm, and orthopedics needed to come up here and evaluate her. They decided they needed to tap the joint, and they needed to do it emergently. The patient had asked if I would stay and if her nurse would come in and be there with her. There wasn’t a question. Of course I would be there, and of course her nurse was going to be there in the room for her. And she did fine with it. The orthopedics doctors couldn’t believe that we were there. That just goes to show how unique this field is. Nurses will stay past their shift. They’ll ask another nurse to watch the rest of their kids because they need to be with one child. We were all crunched on her bed, and I think she did better knowing there were nurses in there with her.
There are days when you leave work and think, “What a horrible, horrible day.” But there’s never ever, ever been a day that I can say I left here and thought, “I wish I wasn’t a nurse. I wish I didn’t do pediatric hematology/oncology.” There are days I wish I’d been less busy. There are days when I wish things had been different. But not one day has ever passed that I’ve wished my career choice has gone differently. There is so much more hope than people think. It isn’t always sad. We are on the brink of so many new things. We’re looking at the link that genetics plays in cancer, looking at the whole use of targeted therapy in treatment. To be able to use an agent that isn’t toxic to every cell in the body, but can go in and just target the one particular thing that’s causing the mutation in the cell is really no longer something that is a pipe dream, but is something that is so close and around the corner right now. We really are closer than we ever thought. And if these kids can be that hopeful and happy throughout all of this, then there’s no reason for us not to be hopeful.