Oncology Patient Grows Up to Become CHOC Oncology Nurse

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.

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Caroline was diagnosed with cancer at age two. Years later, after winning her battle, she returned to CHOC as a registered nurse.

“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.”

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Caroline was a young child when she was at CHOC fighting cancer. Today, she’s a registered nurse at CHOC standing alongside patients fighting their own cancer battles.

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.”

Have you been inspired by a nurse at CHOC? Nominate them for the Daisy Award

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A Heartfelt Thank You to All CHOC Nurses

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Melanie Patterson, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer

By Melanie Patterson, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer

Every day we are inspired by the compassionate care our nursing staff provides for patients and their families. But as we celebrate National Nurses Week, we take an extra moment to celebrate the extraordinary skill and empathy you bring to CHOC Children’s.

All of our nurses are committed to every patient and family that walks onto the campus. CHOC is grateful for the way you partner with parents as valued members of a patient’s care team. Our nursing staff cares for the entire family, and we know we cannot be successful without a strong partnership with parents. You are often tasked with walking a difficult journey alongside your patients. Thank you for understanding that often small acts of kindness make a big difference with the families that entrust us with their child’s care.

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Our organization’s commitment to nurture, advance and protect the health and well-being of children is brought to life by our world-class nursing staff. We recognize and appreciate the sacrifices you often make in order to provide the best care for kids in Orange County.

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Throughout my 24 years at CHOC, I’ve been blessed to work alongside many of our outstanding nurses. Several of you first came to CHOC as an oncology patient,  and I had the privilege of being your bedside nurse. Seeing the brave way you battled cancer, and then seeing you grow up and return to CHOC as oncology nurses makes my heart and soul glow knowing that CHOC has impacted kids growing into adults that way.

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Thank you all from the bottom of my heart for the miracles you perform every day. It’s my honor to work alongside each and every one of you.

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Why I Love Being a CHOC Nurse

In celebration of Nurses Week, we asked a few members of our nursing staff to share what they love most about being a nurse at CHOC Children’s. Here’s what they told us:

Cassandra Maxwell, clinical nurse, hematology/oncology unit

Kendall Quick, clinical nurse, neuroscience unit

Monique Pena, clinical nurse, pediatric intensive care unit

Sheila Paris, nursing supervisor


Dana Moran, charge nurse, outpatient infusion center

Pernilla Fridolfsson, clinical nurse, PICC team

Tayler Key, clinical nurse, medical unit

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Three CHOC Caretakers Shave Heads, Raise Awareness for Pediatric Cancer

Meet three members of the CHOC Children’s care team who recently shaved their heads to raise awareness and research funds for pediatric cancer.

Erika Crawford, RN, Oncology

pediatric cancer

“I used to work in Portland, Oregon as a pediatric hematology/oncology nurse and it was just part of the nursing culture there to at least participate once in this process. As the clippers were shaving my head in 2010, I found that it was a very emotional experience. I imagined the many patients I had taken care of that had experienced the same thing. At work, the patients and parents verbalized gratitude and some parents were inspired to shave their own heads for their children. I told myself then, that I would like to participate in another head shaving event once again in my lifetime.

Not only is it a great way to raise awareness and much-needed funds for pediatric cancer research, but it’s a way for nurses to participate in their patient’s journey. Our patients don’t get a choice in losing their hair (which is a very difficult thing to experience), but as a nurse we can choose to join them in a small way on their journey by choosing to experience being bald.

Even though I have been down this road before, I still struggle internally with my approaching baldness. However, those same insecurities, feelings and fears are experienced by our young patients. I think it’s important to walk with them on this journey in some way shape or form.”

Karen DeAnda, RN, CN Oncology

pediatric cancer
Inspired by the oncology patients they care for at CHOC Children’s, registered nurse Erika Crawford, charge nurse Karen DeAnda, and clinical associate Viri Harris recently shaved their heads to raise awareness and research funds for pediatric cancer.

“When I first met Erika, she had a cute bald noggin. She had just participated in another head shaving event to raise money for childhood cancer research. Over the years I have thought it would be something I’d like to do. When Erika told me she was participating again this year I decided it was now or never. As Erika has expressed, it is a very emotional process. When I tell people what I am doing they are absolutely amazed and shocked that I would do such a thing. This is a very small way that we can show our patients our respect for the difficult road they travel. I can honestly say that I am terrified, but also extremely proud and committed to this process. I love my job and this small gesture is one way I can give back to the wonderful children I have had the privilege of caring for here at CHOC.

I am fortunate to work with some amazing nurses who have been so generous with their donations and emotional support. My family has been fundraising on my behalf as well, and the response has just been phenomenal.”

Viri Harris, clinical associate, Outpatient Infusion Center

pediatric cancer

“I have been at CHOC for 18 months, and this is the second time shaving my head as a form of honoring the children we serve. I wanted to do something to show my love for them and to show gratitude for the way they and their families have inspired me on a daily basis. To be completely honest, I was nervous about how my head would look bald- I had an intense fear that my head would be oddly shaped. But, then I thought about how I wanted to come alongside these beautiful kids, and my nervousness went away. We witness these kids and their families struggle on a daily basis and this has inspired me to support them in any way I can. If that means shaving my head to bring awareness and raise funds, that is what I will do- it is the least I can do.”

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Why one mom is thankful for CHOC this year

By Karen Stapleton, CHOC parent and mom of Noah

Happy Thanksgiving! My name is Karen Stapleton, and my son Noah is a patient at CHOC Children’s. As I prepare to celebrate the holidays with my family, I’m grateful we can be together since we have so much to celebrate. I’m also grateful for Noah’s many doctors and nurses at CHOC because without them, my son wouldn’t be alive.

Noah’s birth story

When I was 29 weeks pregnant with Noah, we learned that he had Down syndrome. Another prenatal ultrasound showed an abnormality in his heart, and we were referred to Dr. Pierangelo Renella, a pediatric cardiologist at CHOC, who diagnosed Noah with tetralogy of fallot, a serious heart defect that causes poor oxygenated blood flow from the heart to the rest of the body. I was scared, but having been a CHOC patient myself as a child, I knew my son would be in good hands.

Karen and Noah in the NICU, shortly after Noah was born
Karen and Noah in the NICU, shortly after Noah was born

On July 27 of last year our lives changed forever— Noah was born! I chose to deliver at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange so that my son could be as close to CHOC as possible. When he was born, there were so many doctors and nurses around. I saw Noah quickly enough to give him a kiss before he was whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at CHOC.

Shortly after birth, Noah’s care team also diagnosed him with Apert syndrome, a rare genetic form of craniosynostosis, the early fusion of skull bones. Noah’s toes and fingers were partially fused together as well.

A series of surgeries begins at 3 days old

Noah’s first surgery happened just three days after he was born. Due to the complexity of Noah’s conditions, the surgery was a team effort from multiple CHOC specialties. Noah’s gastroenterologist Dr. Jeffrey Ho; his team of cardiologists Dr. Renella, Dr. Michael Recto, Dr. Anthony McCanta, and Dr. Gira Morchi; his pulmonologist Dr. Amy Harrison; his otolaryngologist Dr. Felizardo Camilon; and the entire NICU team came together to prepare him and get him through that surgery.

It was a success, and 31 days after he was born, Noah finally came home! Weekly trips back to CHOC’s clinics included visits to gastroenterology, pulmonary, cardiology and craniofacial specialists. It was another team effort to prepare Noah for a second open heart surgery that he would eventually need.

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Noah and his cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Richard Gates

But a few weeks later, Noah had respiratory complications, which lead to an emergency open heart surgery at just 2 ½ months old. Thanks to Noah’s cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Richard Gates, and Noah’s fighting spirit, he was able to come home shortly after surgery.

Celebrating Christmas at CHOC

Just days before Christmas last year, Noah had to be admitted to CHOC for respiratory failure. It was scary to see my baby sedated for 19 days. Dr. Juliette Hunt, a critical care specialist, recommended that Noah undergo a tracheostomy, where a small opening is made in his windpipe and a tube is inserted to help him breathe. Making a decision like that is hard and scary for a mom, but I had complete trust in Noah’s team, and if they knew it would help Noah breathe easier, then I knew it was the right thing to do.

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Noah celebrated his first Christmas at CHOC

After that, Noah started to thrive. He gained weight and became strong enough for his next open heart surgery with Dr. Gates. After a mere six days in the Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit following this surgery, Noah got to come home again!

Even when Noah is doing well, sometimes it can be scary to care for him when he’s at home. During one of our hospital stays, I confided this fear in one of Noah’s favorite nurses, Karissa. She gave me specific tips on what to do during his tummy time and baths, and gave me the courage to care for my son. She encouraged me, and reminded me that CHOC wouldn’t advise me to do anything that wasn’t safe.

Noah and Karissa, a registered nurse at CHOC

Noah’s first birthday

All of this is a lot for a little baby to go through before his first birthday, but Noah has always surprised us and pulled through. Celebrating his first birthday meant more than celebrating his first year of life; it meant celebrating every fight Noah had won over the last year, and it meant appreciating a milestone that at times we thought we might never reach. We decided a super hero theme was perfect for his party because we think of Noah as our little super hero.

Noah celebrating his first birthday

After his birthday, Noah continued to flourish and grow! He started rolling over and actively playing, and he has not stopped smiling.

This progress allowed us to prepare for his next major surgery, a frontal orbital advancement, to reshape his skull and forehead that has fused too early due to Apert syndrome.

Before surgery could begin, the doctors needed to cut Noah’s hair to make a safe incision in his skull. We marked another one of Noah’s milestones at CHOC— his first haircut!

Noah received his very first haircut at CHOC from his neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Muhonen, prior to a skull surgery.
Noah’s very first haircut happened at CHOC. He received it from his neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Muhonen, prior to skull surgery.

With the expertise of his neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Muhonen and his plastic surgeon Dr. Raj Vyas, and a very short stay in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Noah came home again! After yet another successful surgery at CHOC, his brain can now continue to grow.

Noah has more hurdles and additional surgeries ahead of him, but even with how much he’s fought, he continues to smile. He’s not cranky and he doesn’t cry. He’s enjoying every single day he gets to be here – and that’s the life he has taught me to live too.

If Noah’s care team ever needs a reminder of why they do what you do, I tell them: My son would not be here today if it were not for each and every one of them here at CHOC. And for that, my family will be forever grateful.

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