After 50 years of care, CHOC Children’s has no shortage of inspiring people who attribute their bright futures to the hospital. I just met another: Bill Wells, who began treatment for leukemia in 1970 and is now a hospital chaplain.
“What is most important to me in this story is the memory that I have of CHOC, the people, physicians and staff,” he says. “It was always about compassion and caring and being available to children on a level that meets their needs. That has had a huge influence on me and my work as a hospital chaplain.”
Bill, now 50, began treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) at CHOC in 1970 at the age of 7. A Tustin native, Bill recalls experiencing bad pain in his legs, as well as frequent fevers and colds.
Though his pain was initially dismissed by a physician as growing pains and the fevers as the flu, a second opinion led to fast admission and diagnosis at CHOC. There, Bill briefly went on the standard treatment, but then was selected for a new experimental protocol, he says.
At the time, children with ALL had a life expectancy of only two or three years, and the probability of living five or more years beyond diagnosis was zero, Bill recalled.
One of Bill’s strongest memories of his time at CHOC was listening to a nurse sing to him.
“I had the most awesome nurses,” he says. “One nurse used to sing all the time. What that said to me was that she cared a ton about me.”
After five years of chemotherapy and hospitalizations, Bill’s parents stopped therapy at his physician’s recommendation. He then began regular checkups, bone marrow aspirations, spinal taps and blood work that tapered off until he was about 19 years old.
The cancer never returned, but Bill’s experience at CHOC left a lasting impression. Possibly setting the stage for his career, Bill began serving as a mentor and friend to other young people undergoing cancer treatment at CHOC shortly after he ended therapy.
In 2002, Bill reflected on that volunteer experience when he found himself taking stock of his life’s accomplishments. Though he was enjoying a career as a successful musician, Bill wanted more meaning to his life and considered pursuing a career as a hospital chaplain.
“I kept asking myself, ‘If I died tomorrow, would I be satisfied with my life?’” he says. “My answer was no.”
Bill went on to earn two graduate degrees, complete chaplain training programs at three hospitals, and become ordained as an Episcopal priest.
When Bill began a hospital internship at UCLA, he requested to serve in pediatrics and pediatric oncology. His supervisor asked how his own experience with cancer and hospitalization would affect his work. Bill didn’t think it would do so much at all – but he quickly realized he was wrong.
“I have learned a great deal since that first, incredibly naïve day,” says Bill, who now serves as a chaplain for two Orange County hospitals. “My life, your life, our stories, have gifted us with experiences that have taught us compassion and have set us on a path of using our hands, our minds and our hearts to help others.”