Nursing Leukemia to Survival

Sara Dawber

When 19-year-old Molloy College freshman Sara Dawber felt abnormally tired and congested one morning in March 2015, she never dreamed Cohen Children's Medical Center would become her new "dorm room" for the next five months.

That morning, Lisa Dawber, Sara's mother, drove her to visit her primary care provider. Blood tests showed a high white blood cell count. Sara's doctor recommended she visit Huntington Hospital, where additional tests resulted in a leukemia diagnosis. Sara was placed in an ambulance, hooked to an IV and sent to Cohen Children's.

"My daughter was never sick a day in her life, so when we learned she likely had a life-threatening disease, our entire world turned upside down," said Ms. Dawber. "It was the start of our journey into the pediatric cancer world."

At Cohen Children's, Sara's family received explanation of her diagnosis from pediatric hematology/oncology specialists, including Rachel Kessel, MD, and a treatment plan was developed that would save her life.

"My whole world changed," Sara said. "I knew I had to do whatever it took to ultimately survive. I channeled the energy I used to have as a cheerleader to keep my spirits up."

Diagnosis Directly to Treatment

Sara had acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that causes bone marrow to produce unhealthy blood cells and progresses quickly. She also had a genetic mutation with a required protocol of three rounds of chemotherapy. After round one, her cancer went into remission, which is rare when a gene mutation is present. She went through the second round of treatment, just in case other leukemia cells were in hiding, and her body responded so well that the third round was deemed unnecessary. But she wasn't out of the woods yet. A bone marrow transplant was planned next. 

"Sara underwent more than 100 blood and platelet transfusions," Ms. Dawber said. "She was hooked up to three different machines at all times, and the constant beeping became her reality."

Throughout those five months, Sara embraced hope. "The nurses were my saviors, especially Melissa Sands [RN]," she said. "She gave me the positivity boost I needed to stay strong and hopeful."

Ports in the Storm

"After three more rounds of chemotherapy that were necessary to prepare for the transplant, Sara was moved into the Gambino Medical and Science Foundation Stem Cell Transplantation Unit, where she would live, sleep and exist for five months," Ms. Dawber said. "My baby lost 28 pounds and developed sores in her mouth, throat, esophagus and stomach. Her lips were swollen shut and her face distorted. Watching her go through this was truly hell on earth."

Through the tough times, Sara's nurses and doctors shone the brightest.

When Sara lost her hair, nurses came to the rescue and boosted her self-confidence by painting her nails, making her laugh and spending hours by her bedside during their off-hours to give her updates on the outside world. They addressed every tough question she asked with dignity and grace. Ms. Sands and Sarah Coffey, RN, became her pillars of support. 

"It's one thing to hang a bag of chemotherapy fluid for a patient and quite another to connect with her on a personal level," Sara said. "The nursing team at Cohen Children's is the reason I'm here today and back to my studies."

"My husband Darrin and I entrusted our daughter to the team at Cohen Children's, and never once did we question the outcome," Ms. Dawber said. "These people became our lifelines."

Committed to Care and Comfort

Countless patients have been touched by the compassionate care provided at Cohen Children's Medical Center. Sara's story is one of many reasons why the children's hospital received Magnet designation for nursing excellence from the American Nurses Credentialing Center. It is the only pediatric hospital in New York State with this recognition. 

"Families entrust their most precious members to our care, and we take that responsibility seriously," said Jennifer Simonetti, RN, nurse educator for Cohen Children's. "This Magnet designation validates everything we do as an entire institution, not just the nursing team."

Qualifying for the honor required the nursing team to provide outcomes for 85 different patients, along with their backstories, like Sara's. 

Laura Dunac-Beigay, RN, pediatric nurse for Cohen Children's, collected stories behind the scenes. "As I gathered examples, the stories didn't seem out of the ordinary," Ms. Dunac-Beigay said. "Many of us are parents, so we do for these kids what we would do for our own. When we found out others deemed these stories exemplary, it was news to us in the best way possible." 

The nursing team strives to make Cohen Children's a second home — a place of comfort during difficult times.

Read the whole Fall 2016 issue of Kids First.

Focus onHealth TV

Watch Focus onHealth, Northwell Health's TV show. It's the healthy way to stay informed!