Jackson Pagel is a 17-year-old high school student living in Madison, Wisconsin. At age 15, as a freshman in high school, Jackson was diagnosed with osteosarcoma just below his left knee, necessitating chemotherapy and a leg revision. He has been cancer-free for two years and willingly tells his story, hoping to educate and assist others who may be affected by cancer.
An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring JESSICA KOBS, RN [AMERICAN FAMILY CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL, PEDIATRIC ONCOLOGY, MADISON, WISCONSIN]
Jackson Pagel and Jessica Kobs, RN PHOTOS BY AMANDALYNN JONES PHOTOGRAPHY
THE MAGNITUDE OF CANCER cannot be overstated. Nobody can really understand what it’s like until they’ve had the illness. Unfortunately, I am one of the people who can understand. I never thought that something as seemingly distant as chemotherapy would have a place in my life at such a young age. I was wrong, and as an incoming freshman in high school, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. Not only did this disease physically strain me, it took me to the depths of my emotional and mental strength, testing me as if my life depended on it, because it did. The outpouring of support that I received helped, but I was still left feeling deserted; few around me knew how hard that journey was. Although many didn’t actually have firsthand experience, they showed me as much compassion as humanly possible, which I am extremely grateful for. One person stood out above the rest: Jessica Kobs, my primary nurse. Making each impossible day seem more doable than the last, Jess seemed to glorify an experience that, in reality, could not have been bleaker.
Think about the process of chemotherapy. Does the word “fun” come to your mind? No, it doesn’t come to mine either. Nausea, pain, sadness — those come to mind! Each day was a constant war against whatever troops the chemotherapy decided to send. However, there to combat the myriad negative feelings was a positive one: Jess. Waking up and seeing Jess was a truly gratifying feeling. Knowing she would be there to brighten my day and do her best to make me feel at home made the hospital actually feel like a second home, although one that I was eager to leave. Before I even entered “Hotel Hospital” for my many-day stays, Jess was already making it better. Along with a few other nurses, Jess would masterfully decorate my room, top to bottom, with sheets and other items that all related to a theme. Some of the themes she created were winter wonderland, ocean and Scrabble. Despite how goofy this act may seem, I cannot express how special and happy it made me feel. In addition to altering my room to make it more comfortable, Jess would spend time with me. My parents, understandably, needed to take breaks, go for walks and just take some time to think. If they left, Jess was there to take over. We would talk about everything: sports, dogs, life, school.
This brings me to another wonderful thing Jess did. She helped me with schoolwork. Schoolwork while on all of the medications was incredibly difficult. It was a constant battle with sleepiness and nausea to finish just one problem. Always there to help was, guess who? Jess. She truly made it fun, quizzing me and having a blast all the while. Jess just somehow made the days enjoyable. Hours and hours of lying in a hospital bed drained me, physically and mentally, but Jess was always there to lift me back up to the mountain of happiness she knew everyone deserved.
In conjunction with being playful and a joy to be around, Jess encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone. By nature, I am an extremely outgoing person. However, chemotherapy temporarily changed that. Hair loss, muscle atrophy and facial bloating all caused me to become slightly introverted and to make attempts to avoid contact with other people. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want people to look at me differently and think, “Look at that boy with cancer.”
Jess did something I wish I could have done myself. She might not have even known she was doing it, but she urged me to embrace who I was and live as I would normally. By taking me for walks and putting me in situations where I had to interact, Jess broke the shell of insecurity and timidness, allowing me to be myself.
One situation exemplified this ability that Jess had: a fair. There would be games, food and activities in the hospital lobby that were meant to just cheer everyone up. I didn’t want to go. I thought it would be lame, and I really didn’t want to have to deal with a ton of people staring at me, wondering what was different about me. Jess, along with her pal Luray, another nurse, begged me to go; they thought it would be fun for me. I eventually relented, going in with the mindset that I wouldn’t have any fun and it would be a complete waste of time. But really, what else did I have to do that was better? The fair ended up not only being fun, but it was a chance for me to break the bonds of internal isolation that were keeping me from doing the things I loved to do. Without even knowing it, Jess had helped bring out the real me.
All of these things, albeit fun, were secondary. What came first, you might ask? As with any good nurse, her job. Jess was dedicated to her work. Biking through frigid temperatures day in and day out, she thoroughly enjoyed brightening the days of kids who would, in turn, brighten hers. She knew when to goof off and she knew when to be serious. Despite what was going on, Jess oozed devotion. Devotion to being there, physically and emotionally, for anyone who needed a pick-me-up. Devotion to saving lives. She knew how important her job was, and didn’t take the responsibility she had lightly.
My battle with cancer was exhausting and long, and, unfortunately, will never be over. The possibility of my cancer coming back will always linger, but for now, I have prevailed. The main reason for this triumph is people like Jess — people who put others before themselves and truly care. I would not be the person I am today without Jessica Kobs. I wish everyone could experience her presence, which could fill a room. Actually, 20 rooms. Many words could be applied to Jess: considerate, remarkable, positive. In my mind, there’s only one that does her justice: hero.