Why I'm a pediatric oncology nurse

It was 2001. I was a senior in nursing school and I had been granted the opportunity to do an internship at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Who would have thought it would be possible to fall in love with a hospital? It is and I was. I was amazed at the multidisciplinary approach, and I wanted to be part of its vision that "no child should die in the dawn of life." This is why I became a nurse; I love people. I love the fact that nursing isn't just caring for someone physically. It's a big job! It requires you to be holistic, to care for their body, mind and soul. I love being given the opportunity to take part in the healing process. And so my journey at St. Jude began later that year.

My heart breaks for every family who walks through the doors of the hospital completely unprepared to fight the biggest battle of their lives. But I love the opportunity I have to love those children as if they are my own--to do whatever I can to make this journey a little bit easier. I will never forget the first time I went back to work after having my first child. Everything had changed. I was now a nurse who was also a mother. That one fact changed my entire perspective, and I believe at that moment I became a better nurse. I still struggle when I care for a child who is around the age of one of my children. I find myself thinking about the "what if's." What if that was my child lying in the bed? What if my child were fighting this horrible disease? What if I was the one sitting there unable to take this for my child? And then comes the wash of emotion. The desire to tell the patient it's going be OK--to do the very thing I'd do if it were my own child there.

Being a part of the fight against cancer has given me a unique perspective. When a school-aged patient asks if his parents will be OK after he goes to heaven; when I've watched a child take his last breath; nights when I've held a parent and cried with them because there wasn't anything else that could be done, these are the moments of salient clarity. These are the times when I see what matters most. Although these times are physically, emotionally and spiritually exhausting, they make me even more invested in the fight against cancer.

Despite the loss and sadness, there are those times when one of my first patients lets me know that they are in college; I receive an unexpected letter with a picture of a grown, healthy person so far removed from the sick child I cared for a decade ago. I choose nursing because I am able to make a difference in the lives of others. That's how I do what I do. I HATE cancer as much as any one person ever could, but cancer doesn't win--ever.

So, every time I have the privilege of caring for a child, I do my best to find the normal in a time that is so very not normal. That time is not only filled with rigorous chemotherapy, blood products, antibiotics and other life-giving medical care. It also consists of Hello Kitty tattoos, nail polish, race cars, Wii competitions and time spent coloring. The goal is to carry on the dream of St. Jude founder Danny Thomas. Life is precious and worth living to the fullest. I cannot imagine doing anything else. I am committed to these families. When they walk through our doors, they become family--and families stick together.

Candice Duffy has been a pediatric oncology nurse for 11 years at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. She is married to Brian and has four children: Eli, Ella Kate, Noah and Maggie.

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