Pediatric Leukemia Patient Returns to Cancer Unit as a Nurse Tech
Shannon Spicer battled leukemia at age 9. Nineteen years later, she’s back at Mott helping kids with cancer alongside the doctor and nurse who cared for her as a child.
During a recent hospital shift, Shannon Spicer played peekaboo with a giggly toddler, held and rocked a crying baby and checked in on a teen who wasn’t feeling well.
The nurse technician spends her days in the pediatric cancer unit at University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, where she assists nurses and cares for families while also taking classes to help her pursue a nursing degree.
Working on the Mott 7 East unit has brought Spicer full circle, she says — 19 years ago, she was on the other side of care in the same place, battling leukemia.
“They were the rocks”
Spicer, who had been healthy all through childhood, was just 9 years old when aggressive flu-like symptoms sent her to the emergency room and led to a devastating cancer diagnosis.
The then-fourth grader spent two years in and out of Mott for treatment.
“As hard as it was, child life, nurses and doctors made every single stay feel like home. They were the rocks for me and my mom, and it was clear how much they cared,” says Spicer, 27.
“I remember watching everything the nurses did and thinking I should take notes because I knew I wanted to do that someday.”
Nearly two decades later, she’s back in the same unit at the same hospital following that exact dream.
And even after all of this time, there are familiar faces.
Just a couple of weeks into the job in August 2018, Spicer bumped into pediatric oncologist Rajen Mody – the doctor who treated her so many years ago.
“I was rounding on the floor when she introduced herself, and it took me a few seconds to realize who she was,” Mody recalls. “And then I was like, ‘wait, what are you doing here?’ I was just thrilled to see how well she was doing and that she was working here.”
“It’s an oncologist’s dream to see former patients thriving years later and chasing their dreams. To see Shannon pursuing a career helping other patients with cancer, it’s just incredible.”
During interactions with families of newly diagnosed leukemia patients, Mody has even asked Spicer to share her story with them.
“As doctors, we can tell families that leukemia is a curable disease and that we expect to be able to help their child go on to live a normal life,” Mody says. “But I’ve had families tell me that talking to Shannon was the best thing to happen to them because instead of some abstract idea of success, they had a shining example standing right in front of them. Seeing is believing.”
“She is such a tremendous success story that gives people hope and comfort.”
And there’s another influential role model from Spicer’s childhood who she now gets to work with: her onetime primary nurse, Jamie Fernley, R.N.
Fernley had just graduated nursing school herself when Spicer was admitted to the hospital in 2000, and Spicer was one of her first patients. The Mott nurse still has Christmas ornaments Spicer made her and cards from the family.
“Jamie was not only able to give me care but my mother care,” Spicer says. “No matter how sick I was or how upset my mom was when we came here, Jamie helped us feel better. That was a really important relationship to have here for mental and emotional support. It’s what I hope to give patients.
“Dr. Mody and Jamie were like celebrities to me when I was little,” Spicer adds. “To now get to work with them and learn from them, I can’t even describe how meaningful that is.”
“I’ve been there”
Spicer is currently working on prerequisites to get into a nursing program while working full time at Mott.
“One of the hardest parts of this job was realizing that not everyone has the same story as me and we don’t know how everything is going to turn out,” Spicer says. “It’s also the most rewarding job. I put myself back to where they are now and hope I can be a light for them.
“From the day I started working on this floor, I immediately felt like I had found my purpose again,” she adds. “I remember how much I needed the doctors and nurses. I come to work every day thinking how I can give back. How can I make a family feel the way I felt when I was here?”
As a nurse tech, Spicer helps with any daily tasks nurses need assistance with, including taking vitals, answering call lights, making beds and making sure patients get fed and take baths. She also goes on walks with patients in the hallways or just sits and plays with them when they need a distraction or parents need a break.
And her personal experience brings a valuable perspective to her work.
“I remember at times feeling like I was the only one. I hope it brings comfort to have someone be able to say to them, ‘I’ve been there too, I’ve done that too, so let’s take this road together,’” Spicer says.
“Every day I get to take care of some of the greatest kids I will ever come across. They make me grateful for my story. As much as they need me, I feel like I need them, too. They welcome you into their lives and you welcome them into yours. I can’t even explain how much I truly love my job and am thankful to be a part of their journey.”