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Pediatric Oncology

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Pediatric Oncology Nurse: Jessica Leitzel

Leitzel

Jessica Leitzel was touched by the impact of cancer at high school. A friend was diagnosed with leukemia; sadly, the treatment failed, and he died. “His family created a nursing scholarship fund in his memory,” says Leitzel. “I applied and didn’t get the scholarship, but they sent me the most meaningful letter, together with a $50 bill. I saved the money and, when I got into the nursing program at Salisbury University, I used that money to buy my first stethoscope. I think of my friend and his family every day when I use it.”

As a student, Leitzel did medical surgery rotations on adult units and found the patients to be cranky, even if their surgeries were relatively minor. When she moved to adult oncology, she knew she had found her specialty. “I loved it from the beginning. Everyone had such a different outlook. People were so, well, happy.” The summer before she graduated from nursing school, she worked as a technician in the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Building, part of the Kimmel Cancer Center. Then, she did a day in the pediatric oncology unit, shadowing the nurses. She joined the inpatient team in 2011 for three years and recently became a clinic nurse in October 2014. “The kids are stronger than most adults. Now I don’t know what else I would want to do. Every patient has taught me something. I’ve seen great things: miracles.” 

Leitzel is finding outpatient nursing to be more about case management: You get to know your patient, how they respond to treatment. “If Suzie Q is in today, she will probably need to come back in seven days, because that’s when her counts tend to drop. She’ll most likely need specific labs, blood or immunoglobulin. We see the whole picture as we follow our patients.” 

Leitzel says she couldn’t do it without her co-workers. They support and understand each other. “When you have known the patient and family for months, maybe even years, it’s great to see the good times, hard to see the bad.” And she has some experience of what they are going through: Her husband is a cancer survivor. He was diagnosed when they were dating. “He just kept going,” says Leitzel. “If someone can be positive while enduring treatment, pain, upheaval, I want to be a part of that strength. I really admire our patients and their families.”

Leitzel has her very own pet therapy at home: “I have a dog. If he senses I’m having a bad day, he will bring me a slipper. He is a joy! I used to deal with stress by taking a drive in my old — now defunct — convertible.” If she holds in the stress or sadness, Leitzel says, “it makes me sadder or angrier. My husband is very supportive, and sharing with co-workers is key.” Another coping strategy: “We nurses have a strange sense of humor!”

Knowing how much inpatient nurses enjoy hearing about their patients when they are out in the world, Leitzel and her clinic colleagues try to share a monthly update with them about a patient who is doing well. “And we ask our inpatient colleagues to join us for end-of-chemo parties. We communicate the good stuff to them as we see our patients going about their lives.” 

Leitzel says she is often struck by the reaction of those outside the oncology field to her choice of profession. They clearly don’t understand how rewarding her work can be and how much she loves what she is doing: “It’s all about the kids; they are awesome. Don’t feel sorry for me!”