Jan Humber says if she had it to do all over again, she would. Jan is an Oncology nurse who’s worked with children at the Janeway Children’s Hospital for all but five of her 39 year career.
When I was young, my mom said I should go into nursing with the nuns at St. Clare’s. They ran the nursing school at that time. And I thought, why not? The nuns were strict and I was a bit of a rebel so I probably needed that discipline.
Luckily the pediatrics instructor I had was fabulous. She loved children and she inspired me go into pediatrics. So when I graduated, I went straight to the Janeway. My mom had passed away with cancer by this time, so I chose oncology as my specialty.
Jan is also a certified chemotherapy administration nurse on the Janeway Medicine Unit. Most days she’s giving chemo, but she also cares for children with many other diseases.
When people say it must be a sad place to work, my blood pressure goes up. It’s not sad. There is hope, there is laughter and there is caring. And that term – suffering from cancer – which was an acceptable term when I first started work, is also inaccurate. These children are living with cancer.
So how does Jan help these children live with their disease?
We try to make their lives as normal as possible. If available, we put them in a room with an extra bed for their mom and dad or a brother or sister. We tell them to bring in their own comforter, and their own special pictures for the walls.
Our playroom is a huge deal. They watch movies, have popcorn and play with other kids. We even have school here. Teachers come to bedside and in some cases, kids take their tests and exams while in the hospital. If children are admitted for a longer duration, they are sometimes allowed out on a pass, just to get a break. They might go to a movie or hockey game. So we’ll try to schedule their treatment around it.
What about children who are long-term patients?
Sometimes children are with us on the Medicine Unit for extended periods of time and we get quite close to them. You get to know them so well – you hang out with them. One little girl used to call me Nanny Jan and I have a little boy right now who calls me his girlfriend. They know I have a motorcycle; they know I’m a grandmother. They really do become family. There are children I’ll never forget and I still stay in touch with.
How do you deal with not so happy times?
The reality is, we do lose children. When that happens, as it did recently, a debriefing is offered for those in the child’s circle of care. When we lose a child, pediatricians, residents, clerks, nurses, social workers and music therapists often attend the debriefing and sometimes it is standing room only. Tears are shed as we share stories about that child. Many of us spend sleepless nights thinking about a child and wondering how the family is doing. This is the guts of health care.
Losing a child is the sad part, but at the same time, you have other children who are fighting – and overcoming – this disease. There are so many stories waiting to be success stories.
How have things changed since you first started your career?
When I first started almost 40 years ago, a cancer diagnosis for a child could be a death sentence, but with today’s advances in technology, the survival rates have improved dramatically. The outlook for most of our patients is quite positive.
In fact, I’m thrilled with the medical advances that I’ve been a part of. There are lots of new drugs coming out. We work closely with the Children’s Oncology Group, which can involve the use of experimental drugs. But one of the best treatments we have right now is Immunotherapy. It works by using substances made by the body or in a laboratory that improve or restore immune system function. It actually boosts the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. And it’s working.
People are also more involved in their own care – they want to know. And it’s something we encourage. We teach the parents, and the child if they’re of age, what’s important.
For example, sometimes parents can overindulge sick children. But we tell them, if you treat your child differently than you did before the diagnosis, he is going to seriously worry. “Like, mom and dad are really weird. Why are they giving me all this candy? Am I dying?” You have the same child. He has an illness but you parent him the same way you would before he was sick.
This is such an important time in the lives of these families. It’s just really special to be part of it. Because I’ve done it for so long, I know a lot about what they may be going through or what they might be worrying about. I believe I can make a difference.
This story was written by Robyn Lush, communications specialist with Eastern Health.