When most adults think back to their earliest memory, they might remember a field trip in preschool or a vacation with family. But Caroline, a registered nurse in the Hyundai Cancer Institute at CHOC Children’s, remembers CHOC. She was diagnosed with cancer at age two, and spent the next two and a half years in and out of treatment.
“I remember the playrooms, my nurses, the child life specialists, and the friends I made in the hospital,” she recalls. “Several families got really close because of our shared experiences and regularly got together for years after we all finished treatment.”
Caroline now works alongside several of the nurses and physicians who helped her beat cancer as a young child.
Karen DeAnda, a registered nurse at CHOC, was the first one to care for Caroline after her diagnosis, and started Caroline’s very first IV.
“I do recall the day Caroline came in for the first time. She was tiny, and I was a brand new nurse,” DeAnda says. “Those initial first days when a patient is being diagnosed is very difficult on the entire family. I clearly remember the day she was diagnosed and helping her through that first evening in the hospital. It was a surreal experience to see her so many years later as a grown woman; it made my heart pound. She is truly an inspiration to our patients and families.”
Caroline’s parents were at her bedside as often as they could be, but when they weren’t able to be there, her nurses stepped in.
“My nurses were the people who were always there with me when my parents couldn’t be. It was like a big family,” she says. “My mom was a huge worrier, and for her to trust my nurses was a big thing.”
Although Caroline was very young when she was diagnosed with cancer, she has a unique connection to the patients she now cares for and their families.
“Caroline’s compassion and firsthand experience is a gift to our patients and their families. Whether or not she even shares her story with her patients, the fact that she has walked that walk, regardless of her young age at the time, allows her to have immense empathy and understanding for what the entire family is experiencing,” DeAnda says.
The impact that Caroline’s care team had on her as a patient directly influenced her career path.
“I’ve always been interested in medicine,” she says. “There was never a question about what I wanted to do when I grew up; I always knew that I would become an oncology nurse at CHOC.”
For a short time during her undergraduate studies, she momentarily lost sight of that goal, and was struggling in school. At the time, CHOC was in the midst of constructing the Bill Holmes Tower, and Caroline’s dad arranged for the two of them to have a behind-the-scenes tour. One of Caroline’s primary nurses during her cancer treatment, Melanie Patterson, now the vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at CHOC, showed them the new technology and amenities that would be coming to CHOC, and it reignited Caroline’s passion.
She applied to nursing school the next day, and began volunteering in CHOC’s oncology unit, two things that made her former nurse very proud.
“I remember Caroline’s beautiful hair the day she was diagnosed. This beautiful toddler girl— my heart melted for her immediately. She was very young when she was treated, but this prepared her for the emotional, mental and physical toll of oncology nursing” Patterson says. “We have many former patients working at CHOC, and it makes my heart and soul glow knowing that CHOC nurses have impacted kids growing into adults that way.”
Once on the receiving end of the small acts of kindness from nurses — who once went out of their way to pick up Caroline’s favorite food when she was sick from treatment and wouldn’t eat—Caroline now understands the importance of going the extra mile for patients and families.
“Remembering how a mom takes her coffee in the morning, or seeing a child who is cold and bringing them a heated blanket when they didn’t even know we had those, can sometimes be the thing that changes their outlook on the whole day, and such a welcome surprise for them,” Caroline says.
Transitioning from patient to nurse did not happen without a few unexpected revelations.
“When I became a nurse, I was surprised at how much this career is a labor of love. When I was a patient, I had no idea how much work nurses did behind the scenes when I wasn’t looking,” Caroline says. “I felt like the center of their whole world. I didn’t know they had a lot of centers of their world.”
As much as Caroline enjoys caring for pediatric oncology patients the way she once was cared for, she loves even more when she gets to send them home.
“What I love most about working at CHOC is seeing patients get healthy and sending them home, where they belong,” Caroline says. “I also love seeing so many people come together for one child’s health. Seeing that happen day after day is really powerful.”
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