Former Cancer Patients Return to Cook Children's as Nurse Residents
Two survivors share their stories of resilience and determination in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month
For two nurse residents at Cook Children’s, walking a mile in a patient’s shoes isn’t too hard to imagine because they’ve been there, or rather, here. Jason Schilder and Emily Whitworth have both experienced life as a patient at Cook Children’s. In fact, both were cancer patients and received life-saving bone marrow transplants on the floor known as 5 North Tower.
Their journeys differ in many ways. Emily is a two-time cancer survivor who says she essentially ‘grew up’ at Cook Children’s, while Jason was diagnosed as a young adult. But both say they were so inspired by their experiences at Cook Children’s, they decided to return to care for patients and families who resemble their own stories.
For Jason, becoming a nurse was not even on his radar. At 20 years old, he was studying to become an opera singer at Oklahoma City University. At first, he thought the shoulder pain he was experiencing was the result of a boxing class he was in. Then the pain moved to his hips. After several visits to different doctors, Jason finally had bloodwork done.
“They discovered that my white blood cell count was crazy high,” he said. “They’re supposed to be about 6,000 and I think mine was 68,000 at the time of diagnosis.”
He was advised to go to Cook Children’s to see Karen Albritton, M.D., who specializes in teenage and young adult cancer. Luckily, Jason was already familiar with Cook Children’s since he grew up in Fort Worth.
“Finding out that the best place you can go is in your hometown was just serendipitous,” he said.
It was at Cook Children’s that Jason received the diagnosis of biphenotypic leukemia, a mixture of both acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He spent a total of three months receiving chemotherapy and radiation for his cancer. During that time, genetic testing revealed he was highly likely to relapse if he didn’t receive a bone marrow transplant. In another twist of fate, he learned his only brother was a perfect match. Thanks to his sibling’s willingness to become a donor, Jason received the bone marrow transplant that would ultimately make him cancer-free on May 8, 2012.
“I ended up having my transplant on my 21st birthday,” said Jason. “It's something I always joke about because whatever day you get your transplant is supposed to be celebrated as your second birthday, but I still only get one.”
To make his 21st birthday even sweeter, Dr. Albritton arranged for three singers from the Fort Worth Opera to come visit him in the hospital.
“She really went above and beyond, and really, it was a very, very special day,” he said.
With the intense treatments Jason had to endure to fight the cancer, he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to sing again. It had been a dream of his to become a professional performer since early childhood, but he feared his vocal chords had been permanently affected by the medication. But after beating cancer, Jason went on to finish his degree and even received a master’s degree in opera at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
“While I was doing all of that, it just felt like something was missing. I had thought about becoming a nurse when I was in the hospital,” Jason explained. “So I went back to my other love and honestly, I've never been happier than I am right now as a nurse. And especially at Cook Children’s, being able to work at the hospital with some of the people who treated me, and being there for these kids the way the nurses were there for me. I've gone home crying happy tears multiple days because I just feel so lucky.”
He says he loved his doctors, but the nurses held a special place in his heart.
“The nurses are the ones who are with the patients most of the time, and it was the nurses who really took care of me when I was at my sickest,” said Jason, his voice cracking as he spoke. “When I was in the most pain, when I couldn't stand or sit, they made my treatments bearable. I actually got to tell one of them that she specifically was the reason I wanted to become a nurse, because of all the ways that she helped me when I was a patient.”
Much like Jason, Emily says the nurses left a big impact on her, though she was much younger when she was diagnosed.
“I spent the majority of my childhood fighting cancer at Cook Children's,” said Emily. “In November of 2001, when I was almost 4 years old, I was diagnosed with Wilms' tumor. I had my kidney removed with my tumor. That was the size of a youth football.”
For Emily, the treatments lasted many years. She relapsed twice and had to have additional surgeries on her lungs and diaphragm, all followed by chemotherapy and radiation.
“Cook Children's quickly became my second home and somewhere that I felt safe,” she said. “I thought this was normal. Cook Children's made it feel fun, like something that I didn't have to do, but it was just part of life.”
She has especially fond memories of the Hematology/Oncology infusion center where she would receive treatments as an outpatient.
“The clinic was like a sanctuary for me. It was somewhere that I felt safe and where there was other kids like me who were bald and had ports and IV poles. That's where I would make most of my friends,” said Emily. “The clinic nurses always were a blast, playing music and giving out prizes. And Child Life made sure that even though we were there for hours, that it was always fun.”
In 2004, Emily received an autologous stem cell transplant and was deemed cancer free. She was on the mend until middle school when she developed a second cancer in her thyroid, likely due to heavy treatments from her first cancer. She had her thyroid removed and she was once again cancer free. She says even then, she knew she wanted to take care of children. When Emily went to college, she considered going to medical school to become a doctor, but quickly realized nursing was her calling.
“I love interacting with people. I love having relationships with people. I love being very hands on,” she said. “I felt like a doctor does all of those things wonderfully, but I felt like as a nurse, I could do all of those things more prevalently.”
She applied to Cook Children’s nurse residency program, but knew the competition would be strong. Out around 600 applicants, only about 5% would be accepted into the 12-month program.
“I knew that working at Cook Children's was a privilege and an honor, and I just had to tell myself that it may not happen right away, but I'll get there someday,” Emily said. “When I got the phone call from the manager of the nurse residency program, I think I cried as soon as she told me who she was. I didn't know if it was going to be a yes or no, but I still cried. As soon as she gave me the offer, I accepted it right on the spot. I think I said yes a hundred times. My mom was in the car with me and we both bawled after I hung up because it just came full circle.”
Both Emily and Jason say they want to work on the Hematology/Oncology floor where they were patients, but also understand the need to keep an open mind since placements for nurses at Cook Children’s are never guaranteed. After rotating through several departments for six months, Emily recently received her permanent placement. She’s officially a nurse in Hematology/Oncology.
“That kind of sealed the deal and it all made sense to me. The plan that God has for my life… all that I went through wasn't just something to go through. It had meaning,” Emily explained. “I always say that I wouldn't go back and change it, because it's allowed me so many opportunities to help other people and, now, children like me.”
Jason, who just began the program in July, is currently rotating through the Hematology/Oncology (H/O) floor. He hopes at the end of his six month rotation, he’ll be joining Emily.
“It's a very special population,” said Jason. “And the nurses just all care so much. I mean the whole staff, everyone cares so much about these kids and just work so hard for them and work so well together because of that common passion. And it's just really special to be here.”
Join us for the 2020 #erasekidcancer virtual walk-a-thon
While we can't wish away cancer, Cook Children's oncologists, researchers, patients and families are fighting every day to find a cure – and you can join the fight by walking. This year, your donation and mileage pledge will help support the lifesaving research, treatments, technology and programs for patients and families at Cook Children's.