September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s also Sickle Cell Awareness Month. At Children’s of Alabama, however, these illnesses are priorities all year long. And for nurses Brooke Routon and Jazzlind Cunningham, treating children with cancer and sickle cell disease isn’t just a job, it’s personal.
Brooke Routon was 12 years old when she was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma. Before cancer, she was a cheerleader and played softball. “Obviously I didn’t get to participate in those things that year,” she says.
Instead, she and her family traveled from Gadsden to Birmingham so Brooke could receive treatment at Children’s of Alabama. “I really didn’t bounce back after I was done with treatment,” Brooke says. “When I tried to start playing softball again it wasn’t the same.”
Brooke let go of her plans to play softball in college. But because of her experience at Children’s, she now had a new dream. “Ever since I was treated at Children’s, I was set on being a nurse and working with kids with cancer,” she says. “The nurses who took care of me were great. They were like our family, and they still are like our family.”
Today, Brooke is a nurse at Children’s of Alabama in the hospital’s hematology and oncology unit. “Childhood cancer is dark and scary, and for someone to walk in the room and make you feel better about your situation, it’s just inspiring,” she says. “All of the nurses that I work with now — that’s just what they are and how they do their job.”
Jazzlind Cunningham says working as a registered nurse in the hematology and oncology unit at Children’s of Alabama is her dream job. “I prayed for this job,” she says. And she believes she does her job well, in part, because of her lifelong battle with sickle cell disease.
Sickle cell disease is an inherited red blood cell disorder in which the red blood cells become hard and sticky and look like a C-shaped farm tool called a “sickle.” The sickle cells die early, causing a constant shortage of red blood cells, which are responsible for carrying oxygen to the body. Sickle cells can also get stuck in blood vessels and clog blood flow, causing pain and other serious problems such as infection, acute chest syndrome, and stroke.
Jazzlind grew up in Montgomery but often traveled to Birmingham to be treated at Children’s of Alabama. “I would watch my nurses; I would watch everything they would do,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be a nurse. I wanted to help people like me.”
Whether she’s working with sickle cell patients or children fighting cancer, Jazzlind believes her experience with sickle cell helps her give top-notch care. “I can tell them I understand what you’re going through and 100 percent mean it,” she says.
She knows what it’s like to have your childhood interrupted by an illness. Because of sickle cell disease, Jazzlind couldn’t play sports. She missed her junior prom and her senior trip. If a patient is scared or embarrassed about having a port (a device implanted under the skin that healthcare professionals use to draw blood and give medicine), she can show her patient she has a port of her own.
Jazzlind admits that her job can be tough. “We are with them on the worst day of their lives,” she says of her patients and their families. “And you get so attached to these kids.”
It’s hard not to worry about patients on days off, and losing a patient, of course, is heartbreaking. Nonetheless, Jazzlind looks forward to going to work every day. “I go to work to a job that I enjoy,” she says. “And I know that I’m making a difference.”
If you would like to support the work of Children’s of Alabama in honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month or Sickle Cell Awareness Month, click here to make an online donation.
This article is sponsored by Children’s of Alabama. All photography provided by Children’s of Alabama.