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Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center / Centers & Clinics

Pediatric Oncology

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Pediatric Oncology Nurse: Leanne Willbur


Leanne Willbur became a pediatric oncology nurse on graduating from the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing in early 2014. She has jumped in with both feet. “I fell in love with oncology patients. They and their families inspire me. I have an urge to be strong for them; I want to be there when things are going well, of course, but all the more so when it is tough.”

Nursing is Willbur’s second career. Her first degree was in sports medicine, and she was interested in how she could improve athletic training. Instead, she went down the business route and enjoyed an exciting and well-paid career in marketing and advertising for major-league sports teams. Caring for her grandfather during hospice and a mission trip to Jamaica with her church were pivotal moments; she was reminded of her desire to care for others. “I moved to Baltimore from New York because I knew Johns Hopkins was the right place for me.” The transition was hard, trying to manage old and new careers together at first as she completed her training, the financial challenges of study, and moving away from friends and family. But she finds oncology scientifically fascinating and the work very rewarding. 

Willbur particularly enjoys being a primary nurse, getting to know a child from diagnosis and being with them through the entire treatment. She says it is a benefit to the patient to have that continuity of care, and to the nurse. “We sit in rounds every morning and participate in making a plan for our patient’s treatment. I love being so involved, in carrying out so many aspects of my patient’s daily care.” 

Being new to the team, Willbur has found her colleagues to be very welcoming and supportive. She can bring a fresh perspective too, asking questions about procedures and protocols and sometimes shining a light on something that could be improved or updated. And she can help to give another nurse a break from a patient, and the patient a break from their nurse. “Like a family, we all need a time out from the daily wear and tear that a relationship can bring. As a new face without preconceived ideas about a personality, I can help change or renew the dynamic, particularly with adolescent and young adult patients who may be facing psychological issues too.” Willbur is a member of a committee that looks at how best to support young adult patients. “You can’t force an adolescent or young adult to be compliant, to take their meds, to follow our rules. You have to find ways to work with them, to support and educate them so that they can manage their own treatment and recovery.”

Education is key to a nurse’s renewal and professional development too. “There is a hierarchy in nursing, a clinical ladder. The more educated and experienced you are, the higher you can climb, and the better for your patients who will benefit from that knowledge and know-how. We have to keep current, keep up on our skills and education, and we do this by learnin, and by teaching our colleagues through projects and presentations of current protocols and new treatments.”

Willbur has also become involved in the work nurses do to prepare their patients, families and colleagues for the end of life. “As a student, I worked with a patient who was dying. He and his family inspired me. Seeing how they coped in what seemed an impossible situation was a great privilege. Being a person of faith, I was moved and drawn to the way pediatric oncology nurses talk about hospice and death not as sorrowful, but in a positive way. There is such compassion and strength among the team; we want to be rocks for the family. And to help each other, we make time to support each other, to honor and tell the stories of the children we have lost, make time for quiet contemplation if we are feeling sad or overwhelmed, and to celebrate the children whose lives we have helped and who are fulfilling their potential out in the world.” She is always surprised by the reaction of people outside of her new community: “‘Oh, how sad for you,’ they say, but I have to tell you, I have met the best, most inspiring people over the last year.”