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Cancer nurse continues to celebrate patient she called “the life of the party”

Rema Sous MaloneRema Sous Malone has worked at St. Louis Children’s Hospital for nearly four years. She started as a patient care technician (PCT) while still earning her nursing degree from St. Louis University, and became a nurse when she received her bachelor’s degree in 2011. She’s still in school, now working toward her graduate degree while caring for patients. As Rema says in this post for From the Bedside, she’s met a number of children who have made an impact on her life, but Mert was extra-special. Meredith would have turned 20 today (September 2), and though she’s not here to mark the occasion, Rema and many others continue to celebrate her life.

Most people say that they choose their profession, but I wholeheartedly believe that my profession chose me.

Becoming a hematology/oncology nurse has been a dream of mine ever since I was a child. I distinctly remember sitting in my room and reading books about a little girl who attended cancer camp. I liked reading about her life and what she was going through. Although I never truly understood the perseverance and hope these children have until I started working with them as a nurse, my passion for caring for them started when I was very young.

My dream became a reality when I was hired to work on the 9th floor immediately after college. Working with these children was everything I had imagined and more, and I am truly honored to care for such wonderful people. When I tell others what I do, I often get the response “How can you do that?” I can quickly reply with, “I can’t imagine doing anything else, working with anyone else.”

Over the last almost 4 years that I have been a nurse, I have cared for many children with all different types of diagnoses. I truly believe that every patient that I have taken care of has impacted me in some way. I would be lying if I said there aren’t challenging days, but the kids and families that I take care of, along with my amazing coworkers, make it all worth it.

thoughtful mertA patient of mine who has taught me many life lessons was Meredith. Meredith was diagnosed with Acute Myeloblastic Leukemia in November 2012 when she was 18 years old. I was assigned to be her nurse the first day she was on our floor. I knew we would quickly become close; her personality was absolutely contagious. I cared for Meredith, also known as “Mert” or “Merty” nearly every shift I worked, becoming closer to her as time went on. Not only did I get to know Meredith during her treatment, but I also grew close to her family. Meredith’s parents and siblings were always at her bedside, caring and fighting fiercely with and for their loved one. Mert not only had the constant support of her family, but also her friends. The love and support of Meredith’s friends during her treatment was incredible. They came after school, to keep her up to date with the latest gossip and fashion (which would then be relayed to me), had Gossip Girl marathons and pizza and movie nights on the weekends. Even fighting cancer, Meredith was the life of the party.

Mert finished her treatment in May, went to prom, attended her high school graduation, and began her summer before she was off to Emory University. Her summer was halted when Mert found out during a routine check-up that her cancer had returned. It was an unbelievably devastating day but, just like before, Mert was determined and courageous and knew she was going to fight back hard, regardless of her fear. During the next several months Mert received more chemotherapy, fought vicious infections, and received a bone marrow transplant. Meredith also spent a lot of her time in the PICU, where I would visit her as often as I could. After a long and challenging several months, Meredith courageously lost her battle in November 2013.

Rema and MeredithAlthough I only knew Meredith for a year, she will forever affect me. There are not enough good things I could say about her. She was thoughtful, beautiful and intelligent. She always knew what was going on with her treatment and her body, and always asked questions. She did homework while stuck in the hospital – often scoring much higher on tests than anyone else in her class – and despite the fact that she was hospitalized most of her senior year, she graduated high school without a problem.

Meredith was a fashionista, a singer, and had a wonderful sense of humor. She always kept me up to date on the latest trends, would sing hours of Taylor Swift with her friends (and often times to Dr. Hayashi), and would walk around the floor talking in the infamous British accent she would break into when on Morphine.

Meredith was genuine, loving, and outgoing. The day that I came in to tell her I was engaged, she wanted to know every detail of the wedding planning.

Meredith was courageous, determined, and fearless. Although she knew she had a tough road ahead of her, especially after her relapse, she never complained, never gave up, and always chose to fight for her life.

Mert Boyers lakeMeredith will never know exactly how much she impacted my life or the lives around her. She may have thought that I was helping her, but in reality, she was helping me in so many ways. Being a hematology/oncology nurse can be challenging, but seeing how I can make a difference in the lives of my patients and their families makes every hard day worthwhile. Their hope, their strength, their courage and their determination is incredible. They are the bravest kids I’ve ever met, never quitting, even after the hardest day. Getting to know my patients and their families keeps me coming back for more. Every patient has impacted my life and career in some way, making me realize I should never take a single day or a single person for granted, and I am truly honored that I can take care of them day after day.

Transporting precious cargo

Tiffany MellenthinTiffany Mellenthin, RN, joined the St. Louis Children’s Hospital team in 2012 as a nurse on a critical care neonatal/pediatric transport team. In addition to having six years of experience in emergency/critical care, Tiffany also has a 3-year-old daughter. Almost immediately after completing orientation, she encountered a situation that made her realize how life can change in an instant.

I was on my last week of orientation with the transport team in March of 2013 when I met the Mazzola family. My partners and I were dispatched to an outside hospital to pick up a previously healthy little girl who was just diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her name was Abigail, and she was around 3 ½ years old – about the same age as my daughter. That is something that has definitely struck a chord with me since I joined the team: how a child can be ‘fine,’ and then all of the sudden develop this huge problem. It doesn’t seem fair. And the fact that she was so close in age to my daughter hit a little closer to home for me than some of our other calls.

My partners (Erin Juenger and Amy Henschen) and I arrived at the outside hospital to find Abigail finishing her MRI. We spoke to her clearly distraught parents, and tried to do our best to explain what was going to happen next for their family. As a mother, I really felt for Abigail’s parents, and tried to make sure they understood everything we were going to do before we left. Both of Abigail’s parents rode with us to Children’s, and we let her mother ride in the back to stay close to her. Amy and I explained everything we were doing, and what she should expect when she arrived at the PICU. When we arrived at Children’s, multiple things were happening, not only in Abigail’s room, but in other areas of the PICU, as well. I stayed with Abigail’s parents and tried to answer questions the best I could while they settled Abigail into her room.

Abigail leaves St. Louis Children's Hospital after surgery to remove her brain tumorBefore I left the unit, Abigail’s mother came up and hugged me with tears in her eyes. She told me I was an angel, and that we had just saved her daughter’s life. After Abigail’s surgery and while she completed rehab, I made a point to see her, and was amazed at her progress. Right before Abigail was discharged home, she ran up, hugged me, and said, “Thank you.” Those are the types of moments that make me and my wonderful co-workers on the transport team love what we do.

The Mazzolas are an amazing family. They were always at their daughter’s bedside, and have even done some amazing things to pay it forward, raising money for other patients in the hospital. It’s such an incredible thing to know they went through such a traumatic life experience with their daughter, and because of the care that was provided at St Louis Children’s Hospital, they want to turn their experience around and help others.

Working on the transport team, we see families at some of their most vulnerable times. We are sent to pick up children who have suffered a traumatic event of some sort, whether an accident, relapse in a disease, or something unexpected. It reminds me daily that anything can happen at any time, and definitely helps remind me to be thankful that my daughter has so far been healthy. I can’t help but think about how blessed most children are and, more importantly, how things can change in a second.

Abigail’s mother, Erin, recently wrote about the impact Tiffany and the rest of the transport team had on her family:

“One of the transport team members, Tiffany, made it a point to visit Abigail the entire time we were in Children’s.  She had told me that she had a 3-year-old daughter herself and I think was alarmed at our story.  In a way, I think her visits helped her to heal as well, and to close the chapter on her book that everything was going to turn out ok.  I think these people are the ones that are so easily forgotten, but in a way, they are the ones that take you to safety.”

Today, Abigail is doing well. She recently graduated from kindergarten, danced in a recital, and caught a fish with her dad.Today, Abigail is doing well. She recently graduated form kindergarten, participated in a dance recital, and had a successful fishing outing with her dad!

From a Pediatric Cancer Nurse: “Why I take my work home.”

When Luke Hofmann was in college, he thought about going to medical school.  But when it came time to pick a profession, he knew he belonged elsewhere.  He went on to nursing school, like his mom and grandmother had done before him.  Since then, he has worked on the hematology and oncology unit at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.  He shares with From the Bedside his experiences with two remarkable families he’s cared for over the last three years.

During nursing school, I did my pediatric clinical at Children’s and I knew that was where I wanted to work. I enjoy the opportunity to take care of not only the kids, but also their whole family.  I’ve always had a tendency to seek out challenges.  The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity to make an impact.  Naturally, working with kids who have cancer presents a lot of challenges, so working in oncology has turned out to be a great fit for me.

While we like for kids to be at home as much as possible, sometimes they just have to be in the hospital.  Unfortunately, some kids have to be admitted on the floor for long periods of time.  As a nurse, this allows me to get to know some of the families.  That’s my favorite part of my job.  I enjoy building the relationships with the kids and families.  Nothing is more rewarding than gaining the trust of a kid and their family.  Cancer is scary.  All the medicine, procedures, time in the hospital, etc. is tough stuff.  But I enjoy being there for them from the beginning to the end…no matter how it ends.  I take a lot of pride in building those trusting relationships with the kids and their families.

I think one of the most important times for an oncology nurse is when a kid gets diagnosed.  The families are in shock and their world is turned upside down.  I take a lot of pride in being able to give them that bit of reassurance that we are going to do everything we can to help them.  When a kid or a parent is having a really rough day, I enjoy being able to go in and sit and talk with them and give them the support they need.

I’ve been at Children’s three-and-a-half years, and I’ve taken care of so many kids that I’ll never forget. They are all inspirational to me.  I wish I had time to talk about them all.  But there are two that really stick out in my mind, Brandon and Cory.

Luke and Brandon

Brandon was diagnosed with leukemia when I first started as a nurse.  In fact, he was one of the first patients I took care of.  I could relate to him right from the start.  Brandon and I are very similar in many ways (even though he was 6 and I was…well, a lot older).  In fact, over the years his mother has come to call him my “brother from another mother.”  We both love hockey and we both like to cause a little light-hearted trouble every once in a while.  Those are two things that led to our favorite activities in the hospital, hallway hockey and squirt gun fights.  What I really liked about Brandon was that he was such a tough kid and that he had this quiet intensity about him.  He took on every challenge like it was nothing.  And that’s how he fought cancer.  You would never even know he had cancer unless he told you.  He was determined to not let it hold him back.  It’s inspiring to see such toughness and determination from a kid who was just 6 years old at the time.

While Brandon was receiving treatment, I became good friends with him and his family.  Brandon is now 10 years old and doing great.  The past two years, he has helped me raise money for the St. Baldrick’s charity (which focuses on funding research for pediatric cancer) by shaving my head.  Last fall, Brandon finished the last of his treatments.  When kids are done with therapy, they get to ring a big bell we have hanging up to celebrate.  Watching Brandon ring the bell is one of my favorite moments in life.

The other kid I always think of is my friend Cory.  Cory was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma in the fall of 2010.  He was the sweetest kid. He was always very calm and had this gentleness to him.  He was the biggest Cardinal fan I’ve ever met.  I loved hearing him talk about the Cardinals.  They could have never won a game, and he would have been cheering for them anyway.  And, I swear, in 2011 when the Cardinals were 10 games out of a playoff spot late in the season, he predicted they would win the World Series.  Cory had the best smile when he was laughing.  He would try not to laugh at my dumb jokes but he put up with me, and when I could get him to laugh, it always made my day.

One of the things I loved most about Cory was his family.  He had his mom, dad and sister, and they were awesome.  Cory was the best big brother to his sister, who he always looked out for.  His sister would be bouncing off the walls and he would just roll his eyes at her, but they adored each other.  His mom was always very composed and tough and his dad was such an incredible dad.  I’ve never seen a father and son as close to each other as they were.  They took great care of him. That family always amazed me.  It’s humbling just to see how tough and composed they were.

Luke and Cory

Unfortunately, Cory lost his battle to cancer in July 2012.  I had the privilege of taking care of him and his family during some of his last days, including the day he passed away.  Days like that are incredibly tough as a nurse, but it is truly a privilege to be there for families during those times.  Words can’t express how honored I am to have gotten to know Cory and to have been his friend.

Brandon and Cory are just two of the kids that I think of every day.  There are so many more, too.  I could go on and on about these kids.  They are just so amazing.  Occasionally people will ask me, “Isn’t it hard not to take it home?”  I always ask them, “Why wouldn’t I take it home?”  If I didn’t take it home with me, I don’t think I would be doing my job very well.  There is certainly a degree of separation one must have at times as a nurse, but I don’t go into work to clock in for 12 hours and then go home.  I want to be there for these kids.  I’m invested in them and their fight.  I am inspired on a daily basis by the kids I get to take care of.  The day that I don’t “take it home” with me to an extent is the day that I will look for another job.  These kids and their families deserve the best from me.

I work with some amazing people.  We are always asked how we can work with kids with cancer because, “It’s so sad.”  I think each nurse has his or her own response to that, but it’s generally a question I just brush off.  It’s a calling.  It’s something I don’t think twice about.  Is it sad at times?  Yes, but it’s also inspiring.  If I have a sad day at work, it only makes me more motivated to come back the next day.  I’ve seen so many amazing moments of humanity, it gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.  Why wouldn’t I do this job?  I don’t ever question my choice in career. I can’t see myself doing anything else, to be honest.

So when people ask me why I do what I do, it’s an easy answer.  It’s for the kids.  It’s for Brandon.  It’s for Cory.  It’s for all the kids I get to take care of.  I am lucky to have this job and get to be around these kids and their families everyday.

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