Young nurse continues to draw support from programs after bout with childhood cancer
January 19, 2016 12:00 AM
Merel Duursma has her nails painted by patientKyree Beachem of Ellwood City at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Ms. Duursma is a nurse at the hospital and is also a survivor of childhood cancer.
Kyree Beachum of Ellwood City puts makeup on nurse Merel Duursma at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.
Merel Duursma, 24, of Bloomfield is a nurse in the transplant unit at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. A survivor of childhood cancer, she continues to get care at Children's Survivorship Clinic.
Merel Duursma, left, makes final preparations to discharge Elizabeth Hackwelder, 2, of Butler as her mother, Tara Hackwelder, looks at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.
By Jill Daly / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Merel Duursma, 24, of Bloomfield, is a nurse at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC who knows all too well much of what the young cancer patients there are going through. She was one of them, once.
She said recently she’s been in remission for 13-14 years now, and her childhood experience affected her career choice.
“Ever since I was little, I knew I wanted to do something in medicine . The goal was always to work at Children’s, so everything I did I kept that goal in mind.”
Diagnosed at 7 with a brain tumor, called an optic chiasm glioma, that was pressing on her optic nerve, Ms. Duursma said a school nurse discovered she had vision loss during an annual exam. What followed were six months of chemotherapy.
In a 2013 blog on the Children’s website about her experience, Ms. Duursma recalled: “I remember getting so worked up beforehand that I would make myself sick, but no matter how big a handful I was, the nurses were always so gentle and compassionate in caring for me.”
Remission was achieved for some time afterward. However, the tumor began to grow again when she was in fourth grade.
She wrote, “My parents painstakingly weighed the pros and cons of radiation therapy and its many possible and serious adverse effects. Ultimately, defeating the cancer growing inside my head was the priority, and so we blazed ahead.”
The youngster went on to receive radiation therapy every morning for six weeks.
She said she had some lonely times in grade school while she was getting treatment.
“That was a hard part,” she recalled, “because kids can be cruel. … There wasn’t enough room to be different. … A support system with my peers didn’t exist.”
Over the years of remission since, she has found support with other young people who have had cancer.
“I’ve been supported at Children’s,” she said. For 10 years, each summer she attended a week of camp at The Woodlands in Marshall for children who were in active treatment or cancer survivors.
“What helped me was meeting a lot of kids who had gone through the same thing I had,” she said, adding that she stays in touch with some of her friends from camp.
Over the past few years, Ms. Duursma said she’s taken advantage of Children’s SurvivorConnect — including its annual Kennywood picnic day — and sees oncologist Jean M. Tersak at Children’s Survivorship Clinic.
“That’s a really great program because it tailors your visit to not just the disease that you had, but living with the consequences or fallout from the treatment and illness you had,” she said.
The transition to taking a larger part in her own health care has also been made easier, she said, through the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program led by Peter Shaw at Children’s. It combines treatment, by pediatric oncologists in collaboration with adult oncologists, and an approach that focuses on the physical, psychological and emotional needs of cancer patients ages 15 to 21.
Ms. Duursma said she had some problems with pain after her treatment, “but that’s pretty much behind me now.” She does have some side effects from the tumor and her treatment.
“I have some hormonal issues from where the tumor was located and the radiation. I see an endocrinologist. Luckily I had minimal issues. ... Still, it’s something we monitor.” She added that because she lost her peripheral vision, she cannot drive a car.
With the guidance of nurse practitioner Aimee Costello, coordinator of the survivorship clinic, she now has a family doctor with a background in pediatrics.
“I think that’s been helpful. ... He has a scope of what I’ve been through and what it’s done developmentally. As a patient I have to take the initiative,” she said, adding that she understands that survivorship clinics are appearing throughout the country, an important bridge for cancer survivors.
“It makes the patient accountable for their care. Family practice doctors don’t even know the basic principles of oncology in their practice. Survivorship clinic is an important program to continue to grow.
“I’m very anxious about leaving Children’s as a patient. ... They’ve been supporting me. I’m so thankful for that ... leaving that practice as a cancer patient is going to be tough. This program has filled that need. You need someone who knows your case.”
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