By Kelly Soto
(featured photo above: Left to right: My friends Anna Burkey, XiYuan Pang and I in December 2017.)
Three years ago at the beginning of my nursing program, a couple of classmates and I visited the Portland OHSU campus and decided to make a stop at Doernbecher (okay, it was more like I insisted we stop and my very patient friends complied). They agreed because they knew that this was my dream hospital and that I had hoped to be here one day, and they took this picture with me to remember that moment. Little did I know then that three years later, I would be back here again doing my integrative practicum training on the pediatric oncology unit. Being here on the 10S unit at my dream hospital has honestly been one of the greatest joys of my life. When friends and family first heard of my placement here, many of them looked at me with sympathy and expressed concern about the emotional challenges of this specialty. Each and every time, I give them the same answer: It all comes down to how you look at it. I do not see it as an occasion of sadness in the face of suffering, but rather as an incomparable opportunity to intervene and comfort at a very critical time. Even when you as the nurse are not able to help win the fight against cancer, you have the ability to show these children compassion and some sense of normality in their lives when they need it the most.
When I first came here, I imagined that this rotation would be both a clinically formulative and rewarding experience, and it has far exceeded my expectations. In just these last two months alone, I have learned and continue to develop many clinical skills and I have also experienced firsthand how amazing the connection is that you develop with your patients and their families. This is not your standard acute care setting where the patients come and go, and you never see them again. They come back periodically for their next cycle of chemotherapy, or they return for treatment due to fever and neutropenia.
On this unit, all of the doctors, nurse practitioners and nurses know these families very well and have often been with them since the very first diagnosis. They know their favorite songs, foods, and preferences, and all of the family members’ names. This connectivity is what makes our unit so unique as well as enriching, especially as you work with a wide variety of pediatric age ranges. We console the babies who are scared and crying, we interact and play with the toddlers and adolescents, and we converse with the older teens who are sometimes lonely and just need a friend to talk to. We treat these children as if they were our own, and the parents can feel that sense of assurance that we always have their back and their child’s best interest at heart.
Although we are side by side with them as they go through their battles, we are also with them as they
celebrate their milestones: their birthdays, holiday celebrations, and especially, their last round of chemo. Which brings me to another important aspect of pediatric oncology, namely the bell ringing ceremony. I was introduced to this on the first day of my rotation and it was more moving than I could ever describe. We all gathered together, threw confetti, and sung in celebration amidst tears and smiles as our patient happily rung the bell before leaving our unit.
As I heard that bell ring for the first time, I realized that many of these children’s lives are spent with us, and we can have the chance to impact these children in ways that others cannot. That entire experience is one that will never
be forgotten, just as these children are never forgotten by all of us. The sound of that bell will always be heard in our hearts as we continue to give our best clinical care to all who walk through these doors on 10S in the hope that they too, can ring that bell one day and be back home with their families.
For those who are unfamiliar with the layout on the 10th floor at Doernbecher, we have a nautical theme and the hallways and unit entry signs are marked with different sea creature decorations. Every time we lose a patient, we place a starfish sign outside the doors of our unit to commemorate that beautiful star that is no longer with us. They truly are some of the bravest human beings I have ever met. I have seen everything from tiny babies to grown teens and although they are all battling cancer, they amaze me every day by their common strength and courage
throughout their illness. They endure more pain and procedures than most adults will ever go through in their lifetime, and yet they always relish the smallest pleasures in life that most of us honestly take for granted. It can be all too easy for us adults to mope about a bad hair day, or think we have a right to complain about the slightest pain or discomfort. These children have lost all of their hair from treatment and have become so accustomed to pain that what they rate as an acceptable pain score would surprise you.
Their biggest concerns are being able to go to the playroom for some activities, enjoy a favorite meal, walk out in the fresh air, or to be unhooked from their IV’s for a few hours to hang out with their chemo pals. These pals are dedicated volunteers who stay with our kids as they go through treatment and provide companionship to the children and respite for parents to take a quick break. These children show us what is truly important in life and remind us how to truly be human and enjoy the life we live each day. They are and always will be our heroes and they give back to us much more than we could ever do for them. Many people say that I am strong or special in wanting to work with children who are battling cancer, but the reality of it is that these children are the strong and special ones, I am just one of the lucky ones who gets to work with and learn from them.