WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP) — As a child, Rachel Oliver Smith had dreams of one day becoming a ballerina or princess, but then she met the nurses at Brenner Children’s Hospital while she was a cancer patient there in the 1990s.
She was diagnosed at age 4 with T-cell lymphoma, a form of blood cancer, and received chemotherapy treatments for two years at the pediatric hospital.
Now 25, Smith is a registered nurse on the hematology-oncology unit at Brenner, which is part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
And she works alongside nurses who took care of her at the hospital years ago.
Smith has been in remission for the past 19 years, but she gets a follow-up evaluation at Brenner every two years.
Smith said she has a lot of good — and weird memories — of her young years as a cancer patient.
She kicked a doctor.
“I was a bit of a brat,” she said laughing.
But she was a different person with the nurses.
“They were just there all the time and they would laugh with you and be silly with you,” Smith said.
She remembers getting toys out of a toy chest when she had to get a finger stick or a big treatment, such as a spinal tap.
She also remembers meeting actor James Earl Jones and NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.
She even got to sit on Jones’ lap.
“I didn’t have a clue who he was but I was so excited because my mom was excited,” Smith said. “He read us ‘The Lion King’ and then gave out little stuffed Simbas, which I still have.”
During her high school years, Smith liked going on church mission trips, including one to Belize in Central America.
For her senior project at West Davidson High School in Lexington, she worked with Nancy Smith (no relation) in the Brenner outpatient clinic and wrote a children’s book. She told the story of being a patient through the eyes of a girl, based on her own experiences.
After high school, she thought of becoming a doctor but changed her mind after her first semester of college, so she entered the nursing program at UNC Wilmington.
“I took my first biology class and I got real sick,” she said. “I thought back about it and I was like, ‘I kicked my doctors but I loved my nurses. I think I’m going to do the nursing thing instead.'”
Smith said nursing school was hard and there were times when she didn’t think she would finish but she persevered, overcoming her fear of looking at blood in the process.
When she graduated from UNC Wilmington in 2013, she got a job working in adult medicine at Wake Forest Baptist, but she had her eyes set on the pediatrics floor. She got her transfer to pediatrics in March 2015.
Nancy Smith, a pediatric nurse for 40 years, said she was thrilled when she learned her former patient had accepted a position on the hematology-oncology unit.
The two women have remained close over the years.
“She came to my house and had a tea party with me,” Rachel Smith said of the occasion in 1998 when Nancy Smith visited her home.
Nancy Smith described her friend as a feisty child in her early years.
“She came in the clinic and I never remember her crying or ever being scared,” 61-year-old Nancy Smith said. “She came in and it was like you see these kids that never walk, they just sort of dance and bounce. That was sort of Rachel. She was always happy. I don’t ever remember her complaining anytime.”
She recalled a recent conversation with a patient’s father who told her that he had no idea Rachel Smith was once a patient of hers.
“He said it gave him hope,” Nancy Smith said. “I think that’s why it’s so important for these patients to see someone like Rachel, who’s been there and gone through the same things that they’re going through, and to be this success story. Now, she’s able to give back to them.”
Rachel Smith has learned a lot of distractions and tricks to give medicines to patients over the years.
“I taught myself how to swallow pills using Skittles, so I’ve used that on quite a few of my patients,” she said.
Sharron Amason of Boone calls Rachel Smith an awesome person.
Amason’s 6-year-old son Aiden was diagnosed with desmoplastic small round blue cell tumors the week of Christmas 2015.
Amason believes Rachel Smith is so good at her job because she was a cancer patient who came back to Brenner Children’s as a nurse.
“She has become very special,” Amason said. “She makes you feel like family, which we are very grateful for, especially when you’re in a situation like this.”
For people interested in becoming a nurse, Rachel Smith said never give up.
“Nursing school is very hard, but it really pays off in the end because you get to change people’s lives,” she said. “You get to meet so many amazing people and really impact them. That’s an awesome gift to be able to help people in that way.”
Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, http://www.journalnow.com