Semester 6 + Summer Update

As usual, I was hyper focused on school this semester. Everything worked out well in that department, and the semester wrapped up with a 4.05 GPA, bumping my overall GPA up to a 3.97. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – academics have become my arena for competition now that I no longer compete in sports. Scoring high on an exam, setting a curve, or receiving praise from an instructor is my way of winning tournaments or being seeded at the top of a bracket. I haven’t lost my competitive nature, I’ve just channeled it elsewhere post-sport era.

I had the opportunity to take several courses relating to healthcare administration this semester, which were a blast. It was within these courses that my interests in research were highlighted even more so than ever before. I’ve also spent more time exercising this semester than I have in the past several years, and while I am (DEFINITELY) not the strongest person in the gym, I take pride in marking off the number of days that I work out each week in my calendar.

I may not play tennis or do the same things that I used to do before my surgeries, but I can still do so many things, and that’s important for me to realize. While part of life after all of my medical experiences is adjusting to the medications, need for extra sleep, and increased interest in brain tumor research, it’s also remembering that not everything is different. Many things are still the same. I’m still figuring my life out just like any other college student. And, the best part is that my concerns and dreams are starting to expand out even further past three or five years to ten years and beyond. I never would have thought that having concerns about the future would be a good thing, but when you used to spend every waking moment worrying about if you’re going to be alive next week, being able to worry about where you’re going to be living in 10 years is a strangely nice worry to have. My next MRI scan is in August, I’m starting to feel like everything in my life has hit a stride that makes sense. The only thing that could really go wrong in it right now is another brain tumor popping up, and, I’m really not planning on that happening!

I am spending my summer in the Child Development Lab here on campus and in the Child Life department at the children’s hospital I was at last summer, as well as continuing to conduct interviews for and work on writing my thesis. It has been incredible to hear families tell me their stories and have them open up to me in the ways that they have. What parents have said is what has stuck with me the most, though. I think that this may be because as much as I have asked my parents what it was like for them during the worst of my surgeries, testing, etc., they couldn’t have truly opened up to me because they were still trying to protect me. The parents that I’m interviewing have no reason to omit information and protect me from anything, though. I think back on when my dad first took the bandage off of my head after surgery and how he told me that it didn’t look “that bad,” and how I believed him. He went on to tell me months later that it looked absolutely horrifying, and how my mom almost threw up it was so bad. In that moment and upon first sight, my dad just wanted me to know that even though I had just had a life-altering and major surgery, something as irrelevant to my future as a scar was the last thing I needed to be worried about.

I’m also writing personal statements and applying to graduate schools where I’m hoping to pursue a master’s in social work with a health specialization. I have another exciting opportunity involving writing, research, community building, precision medicine and cancer care, but I can’t say what it is quite yet!

Collective Healing

This was my fourth year at Camp Mak-A-Dream with The Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation, and my second as a volunteer. After attending as a camper for two years and finding my community, I knew that coming back and volunteering during that same session, the teenage brain tumor week known as the Heads Up Conference, was what I needed to do in order to help other, younger survivors do the same. Every year when I go back, I see a little bit of myself in younger campers. In the first-time campers, I usually see a hesitancy to talk about how their diagnosis has affected them on a deeper level. Whether they realize it yet or not, telling the same diagnosis and treatment story over and over again is so much easier than actually talking about how the diagnosis has affected them as a person. It’s common for people to ask what happened in terms of how/when you were diagnosed, but not what happened after that. Camp is the place where you can start to explore the “after that” part.

I arrived last Friday in the evening on a flight with two campers, while the rest of the campers and volunteers arrived earlier that afternoon. I opened the door to the upper lodge where we eat all of our meals, and was blasted with hugs for a full ten minutes. It was like being wrapped up in blankets of love over, and over, and over again. Pure bliss. I had met many of the campers during my first year at camp four years ago, and it was so incredible to see them and hear about their accomplishments since then. One wrote a cookbook, another volunteers at recreation therapy center every week, two have full rides for their first year of college, and another was voted prom queen this past year!

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This year I volunteered as part of program staff and helped out wherever needed. If the sessions were our usual camp activities like the high ropes course, zip line, art barn, etc. then I helped make sure than they ran smoothly. If we had expert members come in from the community to run activities such as a poetry workshop or meditation session, I got to sit in on them and observe. Those moments were special because I had a chance to truly take a step back and analyze what campers were communicating with their behavior and language. Every word that comes out of our mouths is an indicator of our state of mind and self-perception, and confidence is always a big focus and something that we want to boost for everyone at camp. During the poetry workshop, some campers chose to write about their medical experiences, and others did not. I really appreciated those who did, and thought that those poems were extremely powerful. To build off of that workshop, another program volunteer had the fantastic idea to create the opportunity for a music therapy workshop where campers could set the poems that they wrote to music. We brought out the drums, shakers, and pulled up an online music library to give campers a variety of options to work with. Providing creative outlets like this is so important, because de-stressors can be so easily forgotten about in the midst of a storm.

Friendship bracelets are a big part of camp. Whenever we’re riding a bus for a camp fieldtrip, or just sitting around waiting for an activity to start, you can guarantee that there’s string and bracelet making going on nearby. One afternoon I spotted of the bubbliest campers just sitting there looking a bit defeated, when there was plenty of string on the table right in front of her. I asked her why she wasn’t making a bracelet, and she replied that she had never made one before because she only had one “good hand.” A lot of our campers have some sort of right or left sided weakness, but unlike me, theirs doesn’t just go away after a seizure ends because theirs is permanent or semi-permanent from their surgeries. So, we made a bracelet together. She held the main string, and I weaved the second one around hers. And afterwards, she had officially made her first camp bracelet. We worked together again as a team when we volunteered at a food bank and labeled packaging bags and had to remove stickers from a sheet of paper as well. I get to resume all of the activities that I usually do at most up to three days after a seizure, but at camp, I’m reminded that some survivors have to adapt to their new normal full time, and don’t have the privilege that I do to regain bilateral function.

I noticed more of a focus on mental health this year than ever before, and I was glad to see it. Brain tumor patients often exhibit depression and anxiety, and mental health is so stigmatized that it only exacerbates the problem. Older campers really stepped up in the group discussions and made sure that younger campers knew that what they were feeling, whether they wanted to talk about it or not, was normal, and that they were there for them. One camper even put his phone number in each and every camper’s warm fuzzy bag (a name-labeled bag where you put nice notes for someone that leave them feeling “warm and fuzzy” after reading them) to call if they ever need to talk.

From caring about fashion to now valuing family, having to give up sports for medical scans, going from caring about popularity to caring about the well being of others, and thinking about a career as a fashion designer to switching over to one in the medical field because of their therapist and treatments, campers really identified a shift in their priorities post-diagnosis this week. Their self-awareness and sense of self at a young age is something stronger than their peers. I am proud to have reunited with and have had the opportunity to interact with so many new, incredible individuals. This week they were told that they are worthy, that they are unique, and that they are good enough regardless of their disabilities. And they are.

Camp is where my before and after surgery worlds collide. It was at camp three years ago that I had my conference call with Dr. B in San Francisco and with my parents in Michigan while I was in Montana to plan my surgery. That’s just how the timing worked out. Whenever I visit, talk about, or even think about camp, I find it hard to believe that that call was made there. How could I possibly have scheduled my brain surgery, something so stressful, so absolutely terrifying, at a place so peaceful and so calming to me? But it happened. And now, three years later, it seems like a far off dream and hardly even a reality. I had a meeting in the same room that I made the call in at camp this week. It didn’t feel that strange at the time, but thinking back on it now, I wish that I had asked for it to be moved to another room so as to avoid bringing up those old memories.

Camp is a space for collective healing because of our collective trauma. Visual and hearing impairments, physical weakness, processing delays, and difficulties with impulse control are primary side effects from our brain tumors. And because of those, we are automatically othered. Bullying, depression, anxiety, and social isolation are secondary side effects that may have an even stronger impact than the initial disability. At camp, the narrative changes. For one week, we’re all on the same page.

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Eat. Sleep. Volunteer. Repeat.

Honestly, I love hospitals. They’re clean, so you’re less likely to get a cold than at other jobs. They’re safe, because you need a badge to swipe in everywhere. If there’s any type of emergency, it’s handled quickly.

At least, that’s my logic, and has been what I have witnessed at the hospital that I am volunteering at this summer. I’ve asked my friends from camp how they feel about the hospital, and no one else seems to feel the same way. Their responses of fear, discomfort, and aversion towards hospitals all make sense given our traumatic medical histories. And yet, I am still drawn towards hospitals. I can’t wait to work in one.

I have been so incredibly busy at the hospital over the past month and a half. I wake up, go there, come home, nap, do some homework, and go to bed. While it has been exhausting, I absolutely love it there. I’d say that 75% of the time during my usual days and life I’m pretty tired (seizure meds/it seems like the mental strain of writing and researching has caused more fatigue recently). It’s easy to see. But at the hospital, 75% of the time in fully energized, and that’s easy to see! I go to the hospital to volunteer five days a week and spend the other two days catching up on sleep/doing homework for the online courses that I have this summer.

While my apartment is only about a 10 minute drive away from the hospital, my bus commute is 45 minutes. The time passes by pretty once you hop on, though, and there’s always interesting people watching. A few people have struck up conversations with me about a cough or bunion (gross) that they have, and I soon realized that the scrubs that I wear have led people to believe that I am some sort of a nurse or doctor with more medical knowledge than I actually have. I’ve just politely listened and nodded, and told them that they should probably call their doctor.

Monday – Wednesday I am running around on five different floors, but on Fridays and Sundays I am just on one set floor. I get to work on all five active floors this summer, which exposes me to just about every single type of condition and illness out there. You’d be surprised by the number of young kids who get cellulitis. My favorite floor by far is the oncology floor, and that’s because of the relationships that I get to build with patients and their families when they’re admitted for longer periods of time. I suppose that’s a bit selfish of me. It has been tough for me not to disclose my personal connection to, and the bond that I feel between brain tumor patients and myself every time I work with one and their families, but, professional boundaries exist for a reason.

Almost all of the floors have a playroom for the younger kids, which allows them to stay in some sort of state of normalcy for their age and development if they’re not on any precautions, and are allowed to leave their rooms. These rooms have age appropriate toys for kids from infants all the way up through elementary age with just about anything you can imagine. Arts and crafts, pretend kitchen play supplies, cars, castles, books, puzzles, board games, you name it, it’s there. The face of a patient when they get to go in the playroom for the first time is Christmas morning meets first day of school because it can be so overwhelming with all of the different, stimulating options, especially when they are used to being stuck in such a plain room. Two of the floors have teen rooms as well, which I was happily surprised to find out about. I’ve heard about a slew of hospitals developing adolescent/young adult cancer programs, but I’ve never really seen anything in action. These rooms would be the closest things to that, with video games, iPads, Kindles, a foosball table, and a couch for teenagers to hang out on with other teen patients when they want to leave their room and just relax. There’s a ton of technology in there, and definitely didn’t come cheap. It’s really nice!

Monday – Wednesday when I’m on all five floors I volunteer specifically with the schoolroom. I typically work with either our patients who are admitted for longer periods of time, or our outpatient kids who come in for treatment during the week on a regular basis. Depending on whether the child is inpatient or outpatient, we work in the classroom, down in the outpatient treatment center while they’re receiving their intravenous treatment for several hours, or bedside up on one of the floors where they’re admitted. We might work on anything from testing for kindergarten readiness through identifying shapes and colors via an iPad app, to developing alphabet and handwriting skills, all the way up to geometry lessons online. Other days, we might work on reading by reading aloud together, or simply have some fun by playing board games. Everything is strategic, whether the kids realize it or not. If I know a child could use some help with their fine motor skills, then I might bring in the board game Jenga to play because it requires the planning skills to select a particular wooden block to remove, but more importantly, you need to grasp and remove that block carefully with precision.

On Fridays and Sundays when I am just on one floor and with Child Life specifically, I am either bedside with kids, or in the playroom. When I’m with Child Life, I am able to offer parents the chance to take a break, and take some time for themselves. They can go to the cafeteria, to the quiet room to rest, or even go home for a few hours and know that someone will be there with their child. Parents typically resist and say that they are fine at first, but after I spend some time playing with their child while they are in the room, and they realize that I am a safe person to entrust their child with, something changes in them. A wave of relief washes over them as parents finally give in to themselves and allow for self-care. I can’t imagine what it is like to have a child in the hospital, especially for weeks or months at a time, but knowing that I am able to help parents take a break and take some time away from being on-call 24/7 while I do something that I love to do, play with kids, is an incredible feeling.

Sophomore Year In Review

This year completely flew by! I can’t believe that I’m halfway done with my undergraduate career. I feel like the first semester just wrapped up. If I could, I would rewind to the end of the first semester and start over from there again. I’m a nerd..I absolutely love school, and would stay here forever if I could. I would probably attend the biomedical, business, engineering, and marketing classes just to see what they were like if they didn’t conflict with my schedule. Well, we know that I would attend the biomedical.

But school isn’t just learning, though, it’s the social opportunities that come with it too. I had a fantastic job working on campus this year and got to meet to many incredible people with such drive and passions that I never could have guessed that I would meet coming into the year. While I won’t be returning to work there next year, I don’t regret working there for a minute, and I found my roommate for this summer and next year because of that job. Speaking of that roommate, we both moved into our new apartment yesterday, and it’s awesome.

I wrapped up sophomore year with a 4.0, and made the Dean’s List both semesters. That leaves me with a 3.9 cumulative GPA for the two years that I’ve been here. Woot woot! I TAed for a course this year as well, and really enjoyed working together with the professor and PhD student on that. I take a lot of pride in my academic work, and it is pretty obvious that I also find a lot of self-worth in my academic success. I used to derive my self-worth from being the best on the tennis court, or whatever other sports arena that I competed in as a serious athlete, but ever since my back and brain surgeries I have not been able to compete in those same ways. The classroom has since become my arena, and exams and courses have become my competitions. I of course find self worth in character traits, friendships, and other aspects of life and myself as well, but I would be wrong not to point out the obvious and glaring importance that I place on academic success.

My favorite course this year by far was one of my Child Life courses called Children Facing Health Care Challenges. While it was only a brief overview of psychosocial assessments of hospitalized and chronically ill children, and techniques to support their coping, I learned a lot, and have another course with the same professor in the fall. As someone who considers themself to be chronically ill, I thought that all of the information was spot on, and that the professor did an excellent job delivering the information, even though the course was taught online.

There was one course, though, Early Childhood Intervention, that I struggled with this year for a reason that surprised me. While the course focused on an age group (0-3) unrelated to any treatment or medical procedures that I could recall or even had any health problems with at the time, a particular unit of the class focused on trauma, and I continuously experienced flashbacks from my surgery and other hospital visits as we went into detail about PTSD and how trauma can effect children down the road. I think that the professor noticed, because she came up to me after several classes to ask me mundane questions, as if she was waiting for me to disclose that I was struggling to her. That was really difficult for me, because I hadn’t had any flashbacks in what felt like months, even though it had unfortunately only been weeks, and then I had to sit there and have them multiple times a week.

I am now starting to get my thoughts together for my honors thesis, and that is very exciting. It will be on the topic of end of life for school-aged children and adolescents. I have my committee fully formed, and now it’s time to get in the research zone. I’ll be spending much of my free time reading to get a jump on that so that I can defend this spring as a junior and get it out of the way instead of stressing over it as a senior. I have quite a few friends who are seniors who are preparing to defend this spring as well, so we can research, drink coffee, and complain together.

In other news, tomorrow will be my first day volunteering in the Child Life department at a children’s hospital out here, and I am ecstatic! I am spending the summer out here in Arizona, and I have been warned that I just might melt. I was excited that my scrub pants were black, ie no awkward sweat stains when I take the bus to get there, but then I was told that it gets so hot that no color is truly safe from sweat stains, which was terrifying to hear. Regardless, wearing scrubs feels like wearing your pajamas to work, and I am all about that.