Winner of the 2015 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing: Laura J. Vasquez, RN, CPON [Children's Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) in Los Angeles, California]
Denise Borenstein Weiner (left) with Laura J. Vasquez, RN, CPON - PHOTO BY ED CARREON
OUR FAMILY'S CANCER JOURNEY began on January 24, 2004, the evening before our daughter’s fifth birthday party. To shorten a very long story — actually, a nightmare — after what we thought was a minor head injury, being rushed to our local hospital, transferred by helicopter to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, being told by emergency department doctors she may not make it through the night, and then being kept on ice for 48 hours to slow the very large bleed that was occurring in her brain, our 5-yearold went through a five-hour brain surgery to remove the large tumor that was growing uncontrollably in her head. We were then told information that no parents should ever have to hear: Our perfect first-born princess, Alexa Rachael, had anaplastic astrocytoma, a stage III glioma, a very rare cancer in children.
Those details are necessary to understand our emotional state as we landed on the dreaded fourth floor of this amazing children’s hospital, the oncology floor. As Laura Vasquez, our RN, was taking down all of the necessary information from us, we couldn’t help but admire the ease with which she was able to deal with two extremely distraught parents. Besides all of the feelings of “why us?” that were swirling in our heads, I could not help but ask her why she chose children to work with — and not just any children, but children with terminal illnesses. Laura’s response came easily, without any thought: “Children are much better patients than adults. They rarely whine about anything. All they want to do is feel better so they can play.” This mantra stayed with us throughout Alexa’s entire ordeal.
Alexa’s battle with brain cancer spanned nearly five-and-a-half years, which included countless rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, four brain resections, a bone marrow transplant and numerous experimental treatments. And through it all our very first oncology nurse, Laura, remained by our side. Laura is an extraordinary healer not just because of all she did for Alexa, but for all she did for our entire family. She was always the voice of reason in the back of my head, putting everything into perspective. To say that Laura went above and beyond the duties of a pediatric oncology nurse is an enormous understatement. Not only did Laura take excellent care of Alexa while we were in-patient in the hospital on our countless stays, administering chemotherapy or staving off infection, but she would very often make house calls to check on Alexa on her way home from work. She would always stay to play a few rounds of Wii Bowling, one of Alexa’s favorite games. I’m not sure who was more competitive, the healer or the patient, but they both reveled in the competition. Hearing all of the giggles coming from Alexa was truly medicine for the entire family.
In the summer of 2008, Alexa had her third recurrence and fourth and final brain resection. This time pathology came back as stage IV. It had now turned into a glioblastoma multiforme. We went to Belgium for five weeks for an experimental vaccine therapy, and returned home in October 2008. Laura was right there on our return, helping us in whatever way she could.
The vaccine did not work as hoped, and in early May 2009, Alexa was hospitalized a final time at the young age of 10. Rarely an hour went by during that last week in the hospital that Laura did not come into our room to check on all of us. In fact, Laura sat vigil with us during those final few hours, making sure we were all as comfortable as possible and did not want for anything, and also made sure we had all said our proper goodbyes, as heart-wrenching as it was. Laura was more insightful than we ever could have imagined.
Laura was present, both for my husband and me, and for Alexa, on May 15, 2009, during Alexa’s last breath.
In the Jewish religion the deceased are not to be left alone until after the burial. Our healer, Laura, not only took it upon herself, but found it to be an honor to bathe Alexa and sit with her until the mortuary was able to come pick her up, a true act of selfless kindness. Now, if that is not the definition of going above and beyond, I am at a loss for what is.
Although our family is still living with the nightmare of losing a child, we met so many amazing people during our journey who have made a positive impact on our lives. Laura Vasquez is at the top of the list. She is truly an extraordinary healer in every sense of the word, and we are honored to call her our friend.
LAURA J. VASQUEZ, RN, CPON, grew up in a house of nurses. Both her mother and grandmother were nurses, so the expectation was that she would follow in their footsteps. But even though her mother “dragged” her to the hospital many times, she says she still didn’t grasp nursing.
“She took me to the hospital in my Halloween costume every year, and lots of other times. But I grew up thinking I would never be a nurse.” That all changed when, at age 24 and working as a paralegal, her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Vasquez says when the hospice nurse arrived, her whole world changed because she saw the power of nursing. When she told her mother she wanted to be a nurse but was concerned about spending four years in school, her mother gave her what she calls the best advice ever.
“She said, ‘Those four years will pass anyway so do something with it.’”
Vasquez began her quest to become a nurse three months later, two days before her father’s death. Today she tells new nurses that nursing isn’t a job, it’s a calling.
This year marks her 17th at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles as the nurse coordinator for the autologous bone marrow transplant program.
Alexa came into her life five years after she began at Children’s Hospital, and beyond an immediate bond with the child, she says she felt the connection to her parents, recognizing it could be her and her husband in their position. Close to the same age, Vasquez also had a child the same age as Alexa. So, she saw her job as walking these patients through the dark tunnel that is cancer and helping them to find life after cancer.
Alexa died at age 10 after multiple hospitalizations and treatments, but Vasquez says her spirit kept her going right to the end. Vasquez even recalls Alexa beating her at Wii bowling with only one functioning arm and one leg.
Vasquez says that on the day she died, Alexa waited for her to get to work before she began the process of actively dying, something she sees often with the children she cares for.
“When she died, her parents couldn’t fulfill the Jewish ritual of bathing the child and staying with her, so I did, and it was a privilege.”
Vasquez knows there will be more Wii games when she passes over. “I never won, and I have no doubt Alexa and many other children I cared for will be waiting for me.