Special Care for Sylvester’s Youngest Patients

By Melissa Cabezas

Special Care for Sylvester’s Youngest Patients

By Melissa Cabezas
From video games and claymation to pizza Tuesday and cheeseburger Friday, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center’s pediatric oncology clinic, alex’s place, is anything but ordinary. In fact, the way its staff cares for young patients and their families makes it extraordinary.

The 3,200-square-foot hematology-oncology clinic at Sylvester in Miami’s Health District is dedicated to the treatment of children with cancer and blood diseases and was founded in 2012 through a transformative gift from South Florida philanthropist Alex Daly. In addition to providing state-of-the art clinical treatments and novel clinical trials to South Florida children and adolescents, alex’s place helps improve the lives of young patients and their families by providing a myriad of services and activities that focus on their emotional needs in a welcoming environment.

Patients aren’t the only ones who notice the difference at alex’s. Many of the nurses find the clinic’s cheerful and open layout comforting for the children. “The open environment helps us get to know the children and their families better,” said charge nurse Sylvia Mendez, “They can play a video game or do arts and crafts while we’re administering chemo or transfusions. They’re more at ease because they’re not in an exam room.”

 

The unique environment allows the staff to interact with the children in ways that go beyond their clinical training. “I came in this morning and played a game of Wii Mario Kart with a patient, even though I had no idea what I was doing,” laughed Jessica Ardente, an advanced registered nurse practitioner. “It’s the little things we do that have the greatest impact. Once they see you as a real person and not just someone in a white coat in a place where bad things happen, they look at you a little differently.”

These opportunities allow clinic staff to create special bonds with the young patients and their loved ones. “It’s the connections we make with these families that keep us positive,” said Jennifer Reichbach, DNP, ARNP. “The kids are very sick and their treatment plans can be a huge burden on the family. I’m always trying to do something to make their lives better and make them smile.”

Even if it means going way beyond the call of duty, like eating chocolate-covered and nacho- flavored crickets, or learning how to dance to juju on that beat, Reichbach is known to go the extra mile for her special kids. “They’ve been through so much pain. They come here and they have a bone marrow transplant, and their lives are totally changed.”

The smiles on the nurses’ and nurse practitioners’ faces are contagious. As an outsider, it may be hard to imagine how they can stay positive and upbeat, but their attitudes are not up for debate. “The patients come in and they’re happy to be here and see us. Their care is secondary to that,” explains nurse manager Kristine Morales. “They want to run around, play, talk to the nurses, or give us a disgusting jelly bean to taste. Even though they’re going through a lot, they have such a great attitude about it. They lift us up.”

“If we’re not in an uplifting mood, it’s going to wear off on our patients,” said Ardente. “They want you to hang out with them and play games. They don’t need someone sad to bring them down. Even on a bad day, we (the staff) lift each other up, and we exude even more happiness.”

In addition to clinical care, patients have access to different kinds of assistance. “Because many of our families come from underserved areas, they sometimes need additional help,” said Morales. “We can provide resources to aid them with issues at home, finances, or even navigating the system because of language barriers. We have a child life specialist and a pediatric social worker on staff and we all work together to treat our patients for more than just their health condition.”

While the health conditions treated at Sylvester’s alex’s place are complex, and sometimes heartbreaking, it’s clear that the staff makes sure that all patients who come through the door receive an extra dose of joy to help them get through.