Temporary Home Sweet Home
During a 91-day stay on Mary Greeley's Oncology Unit, Kaitlyn Gull found an extended family among her nurses and physicians.
Kaitlyn Gull sits at a table, diligently working on a 1,000-piece puzzle. She quickly snaps yellow pieces together to form a sailboat’s mast. She looks up, flashing an animated smile and holding a light blue piece. It snaps in perfectly to create the puzzle’s blue-sky background.
"I have a photographic memory," Kaitlyn says. "I love puzzles, Sudoku, anything like that."
She also loves Pizza Hut, her Mal-Shih puppy, Maggie, and joking with the Mary Greeley Medical Center nurses, with whom she spent 91 days while battling Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
Cancer Care, Close to Home
Kaitlyn, a 16-year-old from Nevada, began feeling sick in early February. Her parents brought her to see Thomas Zimmerman, M.D., family practice physician at McFarland Clinic. He ran tests, from labs to X-rays, and noticed that she was slightly anemic. Two days and a few doses of medication later, Kaitlyn wasn’t feeling better, so she was referred to oncologist/hematologist Debra Prow, M.D.
"I saw Dr. Prow on Feb. 18, and I was admitted to the hospital that night," Kaitlyn says. "It was my mom's birthday, so that stunk pretty bad."
Kaitlyn's mother, Dawn, works at McFarland Clinic; her father, Jerry, also works in Ames, and her sister, Cassie, works at Mary Greeley Medical Center, so the family chose to pursue cancer care for Kaitlyn at Mary Greeley Medical Center. Dr. Prow assured the family that Kaitlyn would receive the highest quality care possible.
"We were offered alternatives for Kaitlyn's treatment, but we felt comfortable with the staff at Mary Greeley Medical Center," Jerry says.
"People don’t think about having high-level care locally, and we found it here. We were blessed to have it close to home."
Kaitlyn began chemotherapy, administered every Monday. A typical day included waking up at 4 a.m. for blood work, then sleeping until Dr. Prow came in to assess her health and map out daily treatment plans.
Following chemotherapy, Kaitlyn felt nauseous and experienced a metallic taste while eating. Luckily, she found a cure for the metallic taste in Pizza Hut’s pepperoni pizza, one of the few foods that tasted normal throughout treatment.
"I ate hospital food, but it’s tough to eat the same thing every day. Sometimes we would order in," Kaitlyn says. "Sometimes my mom would bring a crock pot and cook in my room."
During a 91-day stay on Mary Greeley’s Oncology Unit, Kaitlyn Gull found an extended family among her nurses and physicians.
A Prescription for Fun
Friends and family visited Kaitlyn frequently. After three weeks in a single room, she was transferred to a suite with two rooms, two bathrooms, a couch, two televisions and a kitchenette. The suite was provided by the generosity of the William Burke family.
"Friends were stopping by, so it was so nice to have extra space," Dawn says. "We brought in our own towels and sheets to make it more like home."
Walls were decorated with cards, balloons and drawings, and the bed sheets were tiedyed. Kaitlyn used ribbons to decorate her IV pole, which she nicknamed her "dancing partner." She also received a colorful fleece blanket, donated by the William R. Bliss Cancer Center and The Joy Project.
Many family birthdays passed during Kaitlyn's stay at the medical center. To celebrate, she made trips with a nurse to the gift shop to pick out cards and gifts.
"For birthdays, we made hats out of cups and ribbon," Dawn says. "We decorated them with stickers and Sharpies. The staff was helpful, too. They really made tough times easier."
To help the 16-year-old cope with her extended stay, Dr. Prow prescribed a slumber party for Kaitlyn and a few friends. "Dr. Prow ordered a slumber party as part of my treatment," Kaitlyn says. "My friends came, and we ate Applebee's and watched movies. It was awesome."
The Oncology nurses also helped the teenager cope with her unfamiliar surroundings. Kaitlyn recalls late-night talks with her favorite nurse, Jenni Erickson, R.N., vending machine trips and playing pranks on nurses as her favorite activities.
"Alisha Dickson (Oncology Unit Secretary) and I would take the elevator to the vending machines and walk back up the stairs for exercise," Kaitlyn says. "One time my Gatorade got stuck, so Alisha bought other
things to get it unstuck. We ended up with four Gatorades, two pops and a bottled water."
Kaitlyn’s parents felt at ease leaving her at Mary Greeley Medical Center, reassured that she felt comfortable with the staff.
"They treated more than her disease; they treated her as a little sister," Jerry says. "But they were also
professional. They knew when it was time to be friends and when to be nurses."
After completing her first chemo cycle, Kaitlyn was allowed to leave Mary Greeley Medical Center for a few
hours. She spent the day doing some of her favorite activities she missed out on while in the hospital.
"We went house hunting with Cassie and her boyfriend," Kaitlyn says. "I saw my puppy, Maggie, and we saw Diary of a Wimpy Kid. We went to Outback Steakhouse and I had macaroni and cheese, Aussie cheese fries and pink lemonade—my favorite."
Kaitlyn enjoyed the escape, but returned that evening, exhausted. More treatment awaited her, which varied daily.
During her treatment, Kaitlyn volunteered for a clinical cancer trial. The trial involved having extra lab samples drawn but didn’t add extra strain to her treatment.
"I want to help others while I'm getting help," Kaitlyn says. "I don’t know much about the trial because I don’t like to know too much about what's going on. Some of the side effects scare me, so I make people leave the room when they talk about it."
Mary Greeley Medical Center’s clinical research program allows patients access to the latest trials without the need to travel. Kaitlyn’s participation assists in finding new, safe and effective ways to treat cancer.
A Newfound Family
Kaitlyn was released from Mary Greeley Medical Center at the end of May but continues to come in for treatment.
"The best parts about being home are sleeping in my bed and doing my own thing, like riding my dad's motorcycle," Kaitlyn says. "People aren’t waking me up early in the morning, and I don't have to drag my
dance partner everywhere."
Kaitlyn's release from Mary Greeley Medical Center meant she was responding well to treatment, and she could return to life as a typical teenager. She and her family, however, look back positively on the three
months spent at the medical center.
"That first night on the Oncology unit, we didn’t know anyone, and they didn’t know us," Dawn says. "The day we left, they knew everything about us, and we knew so much about them. They were the people we
laughed and cried with for 91 days."
Kaitlyn agrees. "I know it sounds cliché," she says. "But I really came in as a stranger, and I left as family."