From left: Kaitlyn Whitewater, B.S.N. RN, and Debbie Talley - PHOTOS BY ERIN GOODRICH
I know an extraordinary oncology nurse. I am not a current or former patient, or a peer. I am her former caregiver and her mother.
My daughter, Kaitlyn Whitewater, was just beginning her first semester of college when she was diagnosed with acute biphenotypic leukemia. She was suffering from a rare case of both acute lymphoblastic leukemia and acute myeloid leukemia. She was immediately sent to The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Within a week of diagnosis, she was in the intensive care unit, comatose and with her liver failing. The doctors could not make us any promises of her survival. But thanks to their knowledge and medical expertise — and a lot of prayer — she regained consciousness and her liver began to heal. Kaitlyn underwent extensive chemotherapy and a subsequent matched, unrelated-donor allogeneic stem cell transplant. We spent 10 months in Houston, approximately seven of them in the hospital. There were many nurses, doctors, technicians, et cetera — too many to count — who helped ensure Kaitlyn was comfortable and would continue to live.
During Kaitlyn’s hospital stay at MD Anderson and in Houston, she continued her studies online at Tulsa Community College in Oklahoma. Prior to her diagnosis, she had already decided on a nursing career. But now she knew the area in which she wanted to work: She wanted to become an oncology nurse.
Finally, we returned to Tulsa to a new “normal.” It was necessary for Kaitlyn to be seen by her oncology team in Tulsa every day for blood work and labs. During one of her many visits to Saint Francis Hospital’s Oncology Unit, a conversation with the nurse manager led to Kaitlyn becoming a nurse technician on 7 West, the oncology unit. With determination, she earned her certified nursing assistant credential and started working as a nurse tech. She also attended Tulsa Community College as a full-time student.
After earning her associate degree in science at Tulsa Community College, she applied and was accepted to the nursing program at the University of Tulsa. This is by far one of the hardest programs to be accepted into and attend, but she was determined. During her studies at both the community college and the university, she experienced memory and concentration problems, side effects attributed to the chemotherapy. But she was bent on earning her bachelor of science in nursing, and on May 6, 2017, she walked across the stage and received her degree.
By that time, she had been a nurse tech for five years — she had continued working in the oncology unit while going to school. After interviewing with Saint Francis Hospital for a nursing position and passing the National Council Licensure Examination, she became a clinical nurse 1.
Kaitlyn Whitewater is now a clinical nurse 1 in Saint Francis Hospital’s Oncology Unit. She works alongside many of the nurses that helped with her care when she was an oncology patient. She has come full circle.
When I attend events for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society with Kaitlyn, many of her former and current patients introduce themselves to me. I have the pleasure of hearing about how much Kaitlyn, as a registered nurse — and earlier, as a nurse tech — helped them during their stays in the hospital. They are so surprised to hear she is a cancer survivor — that at one time she didn’t want to eat or get out of bed, either, and was unsure of her future. But here she is, not only surviving but also living.
She isn’t the type of person to come out and tell everyone her story of treatment and survival — it’s not about her. She will share her story only if she feels it will help the patient. Many of the nurses have asked Kaitlyn to talk with their patients, as well, about her experiences with cancer, the disease and its treatment.
One thing Kaitlyn can give the patients and their families is hope. Sometimes it’s just by listening to their concerns. But once she shares her own experiences, they know she understands some of what they might be going through, physically and mentally. It helps to know they’re not alone in their cancer journeys.
Kaitlyn is a caring, compassionate, knowledgeable oncology nurse who just so happens to also be a cancer survivor. She is an extraordinary healer.