Like many nurses, Heather Hightower, MSEd, RN, CPHON, didn’t plan to become a nurse. But they’ve found a career in pediatric hematology/oncology nursing that fulfills their passions for science and for working with an adolescent and young adult population. For today’s celebration of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses Day, Hightower shared some thoughts on this career path.
Hightower is now the office practice nurse for the Adolescent and Young Adult Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and their nursing path started with an undergrad degree in religious studies, a master’s degree in education, and some time as a high school science teacher in New York. Hightower says they realized nursing was a field they were interested in pursuing.
Heather Hightower, MSEd, RN, CPHON
“I love education and teaching students,” they say, and their current role helps a younger population navigate a cancer diagnosis while grappling with essential life questions of “Who am I?” and “What can I be in this world?” The work is Hightower’s sweet spot. “That population needs additional support because they are navigating so many things at the same time, and then they have a cancer diagnosis and everything gets derailed,” they say. As a nurse and an educator, Hightower pulls on all of their experiences and skills each day. “It’s so human and so science-y at the same time,” they say.
From Job Fair to New Specialty
Thinking they’d like to be a midwife or a labor and delivery nurse and playing with the idea of returning to New York, Hightower says a conversation at a job fair unexpectedly led them to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The hospital didn’t have a labor and delivery department, but they did have a women’s health department, and Hightower eventually began working there with gynecology oncology and breast oncology patients as an inpatient bedside nurse. “But I missed working with a kids,” they say.
A mentorship program led them to pediatric oncology and eventually to their current role where they work with adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 39. The Adolescent and Young Adult Program at Memorial Sloan Kettering supports patients from all angles, and Hightower makes personal connections with their patients and with all the other departments they might need. “We consider what are the supports they need,” they say. “They need counseling, social work, vocational and school support, but also nursing that supports health literacy development and supports social development.”
Helping Patients Through the Cancer Journey
For Hightower, the unease and struggle to find a place in a new situation hits home. “I remember what it’s like to be a new kid and try to make new friends,” they say. “So I see them come in and feel this is so foreign to them and they just want to find someone they can connect with so they aren’t doing this alone,” they say. “It’s the same idea, just a different location.”
Within a specialty that is focused on cancer patients but encompasses a wide age range and all different cancers and treatment modalities, Hightower has found nursing support as a member of the Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses (APHON), the professional organization for pediatric hematology/oncology nurses and other pediatric hematology/oncology healthcare professionals. “I can say so many wonderful things [about pediatric hematology/oncology nursing], but at the end of the say it’s really tough,” says Hightower. While nurses celebrate the many successful treatments and healthy patients, they go through real lows as well. “APHON is there to support nurses,” they say and bring together nurses who are driven to advance treatment and quality of life for their patients.
With so many moving pieces to treatment, Hightower says having excellent communication and critical thinking skills is essential. They need to be able to talk with their patients (often either very chatty or very quiet) and help them understand, but also communicate with families and other medical teams. “It’s often saying the same idea in different ways, and it’s a real skill set,” they say because it all has the same goal of supporting the patient and understanding how each step will ensure the best possible care. Hightower must be agile to synthesize all the medical information into words a parent, caregiver, or patient can understand while also working with researchers, labs, and other nurses.
Representation Is Key for Patient Relationships
Hightower is also mindful of how diversity and representation holds a big place in caring for any population, but especially an adolescent and young adult one. “I feel like diversity is my second job,” they say. Hightower says their identities as Black, queer, and nonbinary help inform everything they do with patients.
“It’s important, particularly for patients of color and patients who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ communities, to find someone who can understand them and who can respect them,” Hightower says. “It’s hard to show up as your authentic self, so it’s important for me to show up as a queer person of color and say, ‘I am here and you can be here too. You can be here comfortably and safely. I am here to support you however you show up.'”
Professional Organization Offers Support and Education
Hightower says APHON is an excellent resource for pediatric hematology/oncology nurses. APHON members are dedicated to promoting optimal nursing care for children, adolescents, and young adults with cancer and blood disorders, and their families.
Recent advances in cancer treatment are exciting, says Hightower, particularly in CAR T-cells and in immunotherapy. Members share information and strategies to see what else they can do to integrate into their own practices. Conferences are an excellent opportunity. “It’s bringing minds together around this really important population,” they say, “and figuring out how do we support that nationally.”
Pediatric hematology/oncology nurses work with the youngest patients and their families as they navigate through the difficult diagnosis of cancer or a blood disorder. From caring for the smallest children to adolescents and young adults, these nurses use their expert knowledge of evidence-based practice in the latest treatment and care of these diseases to help patients. Using equipment and treatments that are state-of-the-art, pediatric hematology/oncology nurses must stay current in the rapid developments in the field so they are able to provide the best nursing care possible.
As with other nursing specialties, pediatric hematology/oncology nursing requires nurses to have a nuanced approach to caring for patients who don’t always understand the scope of their sometimes painful treatments or who have to cope with symptoms or aftereffects of medications. But they also must work carefully with the families and loved ones of their young patients who also might be learning about cancer care or hematology conditions for the first time. There’s a lot of information to understand and process and so hematology/oncology nurses are excellent educators to help everyone involved have the information they need.
As nurses gain more hands-on experience in the field, they learn how to care for children, how to help them through any treatments, and how to bring some normalcy into their lives as is possible. A hematology/oncology nurse works with a compassionate family-centered approach to include all the loved ones who are with their patients and caring for them at home or staying with them in a hospital or facility.
Despite all the progress in cancer care and treatment, nurses know they will lose some patients. They need to have the support available to help with any loss, and many nurses say the work itself helps. Because they work with children, the boundless spirit of their patients keeps them going. Even children going through multiple hospitalizations want some of the fun of childhood and so they bring continual joy to their care giving team.
Nurses who are considering this specialty should first spend some time shadowing a pediatric hematology/oncology nurse and take some time to be on a unit where these nurses work. By spending time with nurses doing this work in real time, you’ll be able to see what a typical day is like. Pediatric hematology/oncology nurses should have a minimum of an associate’s degree, but a BSN is preferable because of the additional knowledge, critical thinking skills, and internship or externship opportunities available. And while spending time on a pediatric hematology/oncology unit is necessary, nurses may also want to work on a general pediatric unit with a pediatric nurse as well, to understand the differences in caring for a younger population.
And if you have pediatric hematology/oncology nurses in your life, today’s a great day to thank them for all they do for the lives of the young patients they work with.
With September designated as Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, it’s especially fitting to recognize the nurses who care for these young patients with a day to honor their compassionate work.
September 8 marks Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurse Day, the fifth such celebration of its kind. Spearheaded by the Association of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses (APHON), the day recognizes the work of caring for children, teens, and young adults who have cancer or blood disorders. In addition, the nurses are also supports and sources of knowledge for the families and loved ones of these children who have been diagnosed with life-threatening and life-changing diseases and disorders.
APHON is working steadily to have states recognize and celebrate September 8 as an officially dedicated day. Organizations and the health care teams within them can help these efforts by notifying legislators of the importance of honoring the work in this challenging and rewarding field.
If you are interested in taking action to support these efforts or just honoring a pediatric hematology/ oncology nurse in your life, there’s lots you can do.
Write to your legislators to inform them about the day and propose legislation to have the day officially recognized in your state. You can also invite legislators to a presentation to tell them about this important role in the lives of children and families and health care organizations. Teach them about what you do—in short order they will be amazed.
Use social media for one of its best purposes –spreading good news far and wide. Post on Facebook, chat on Twitter, and post pics on Instagram of you and your fellow nursing team. Use #pediatrichematologyoncologynursesday to bring it all together.
Say thank you to your team or to the pediatric hematology/oncology nurses in your life. Working with children who are fighting these diseases is uplifting, emotional, and essential for the children. Let these nurses know how crucial their work is by spreading a little joy throughout the day and making them feel appreciated.
If you’re a nurse and are interested in exploring this field, contact APHON to learn about some of the requirements and skills you’ll need. A BSN is recommended for pediatric hematology/oncology nurses, and you’ll probably want to work in a general pediatric unit so you can get a feeling for what it’s like working with kids. After gaining some on-the-job experience, getting certification as a Certified Pediatric Hematology Oncology Nurse (CPHON) with the Oncology Nursing Certification Corporation will boost your confidence, your skill set, and your professional credentials.
Happy Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Nurses Day!
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