Childhood leukemia patient returns to the hospital as a staff member

Heather Kays was a 12-year-old girl newly diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was a cancer patient at Norton Children’s Hospital. Now, as a 23-year-old healthy woman, she is on the staff as a patient care associate in the hospital’s Addison Jo Blair Cancer Care Center.

As she cares for children undergoing treatment with Norton Children’s Cancer Institute, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, she carries her own memories about how the caregivers become an extension of cancer patients’ families.

Maureen Lamb, R.N., now a nurse manager at Norton Children’s Hospital, was one of Heather’s nurses. “Mo” became more like a second mother to Heather.

“We became especially close throughout my chemotherapy treatment,” Heather said. “She really pushed me out of my comfort zone, encouraging me to be social and make new friends on the unit, since my friends weren’t able to visit.”

Like many pediatric cancer patients, Heather was susceptible to infection and needed to be isolated to reduce the risk of contracting an illness. Making new friends on the unit is important to the kids’ mental health.

‘Happy and home’ on the unit

Heather hasn’t had a chemotherapy treatment in nine years. While her cancer journey was a roller coaster of emotions, she chooses to remember the positive impact her nurses and doctors made — and the new friends and “family” she found along the way.

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Even before her childhood cancer diagnosis, Heather had dreamed of one day working in oncology and helping cancer patients.

She is now studying to become a registered nurse.

And Mo, who manages Heather’s unit, is her boss. She continues to push Heather every day to be her best and to keep following her dreams.

“It’s hard not to feel happy and at home while on the unit,” Heather said. “So many of the people who helped me when I was younger are still helping others. My dream is to help children the same way I was helped as a child.”

According to Heather, she feels best when helping children see the brighter side of things, as Mo and others taught her when she was a young patient.

“It was never actually about the end,” Heather said. “It was about taking my journey one step at a time and believing everything was going to be OK.”

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