Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Doing Great Things

Cancer survivor Kelly Ramljak cares for young patients as a pediatric oncology nurse.

More than a decade ago, her nurses at Children’s Memorial Hospital helped Kelly Ramljak ’08 survive her childhood battle with leukemia. Now, as a pediatric oncology nurse at the same hospital, she’s providing the care for young cancer patients. Here, she talks about her dream job.

When I was in sixth grade, I was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. It was April 8, 1997—a week before my twelfth birthday. My parents thought right away they were going to lose me. I was scared, but I never thought I was going to die. When you’re that young, I guess you think that you have your whole life to live. I remember thinking, “Okay, now they’re going to tell me what I have to do, and I’m going to get through it. I’m going to be okay.”

The whole course of treatment lasted two-and-a-half years. For the first nine months or so, I was at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago almost every other week for chemotherapy. At the very beginning of my treatment I met a nurse who was amazing. I was having a hard time, feeling awful. And one day she told me that she knew how I felt, because when she was fifteen she’d had lymphoma. That was the first I’d heard of someone who’d been through what I was going through. I realized that she was doing great things, and I thought to myself, “I think I’d like to be a nurse, too. Maybe I can make a difference in other kids’ lives someday.”

I think from that point forward I knew I wanted to become a nurse. I wanted to be the one to sit and talk with patients, to comfort them as they’re going through all this. That nurse still works at Children’s and when I see her, I sometimes tell her, “You’re the reason I’m here.”

I heard about Elmhurst’s nursing program from a friend. I loved it, loved how small the classes were. Every teacher knows you, and you do a lot of communicating with them by e-mail and by phone. They help you every step of the way. All the teachers in the nursing program were amazing.

I graduated in June 2008 and I knew that Children’s was the only place I wanted to work. It’s my dream job and I got it. I’m a pediatric oncology nurse. We take care of kids ranging from infants to twenty years old. Most either have cancer or some sort of blood disorder; so they come in for chemotherapy or for infections or because their immune systems are weak. We see a lot of very sick kids, and they can be with us anywhere from two days to a month or more.

I work twelve-hour shifts and usually take care of two or three patients per shift. Really, you’re not just caring for the kids but for the whole family as well. That’s the part I like most about my work. You’re doing a lot of teaching, educating the children about their illness, and also helping and educating the parents.

Parents spend so much time here while their children are going through treatment that they really get to be like family to us. We get to know them and that makes for a better environment.

Taking care of the kids makes me very happy. They’re amazingly upbeat. They’re not thinking that they have this illness that they could die from. They’re thinking about getting better and going home and getting back to their school and friends.

I was told that it would be hard to work with kids, but that’s not hard for me. What gets difficult is the nursing duties. It’s a twelve-hour day filled with nursing tasks, keeping track of medication and doing computer work, and there’s no going home until everything is taken care of.

But I love it here. The whole hospital is amazing. They do so many things with arts and crafts and music to keep the kids busy. I don’t see myself ever leaving here.

My story isn’t something I talk about a lot with patients. The way I look at it, I don’t have to tell families what I went through. I think they can see by the way I take care of their child that I really care. But having gone through it does help me do my job. You have a completely different perspective of what kids need and how their illness can affect them. You understand how important it is to just have someone to talk to.

Would I be doing what I’m doing today if I hadn’t gone through what I did when I was younger? I don’t think so. It definitely changed my life. I know I want to be an oncology nurse for a long time, to invest my life in it. This is where I want to be.

Photo by Roark Johnson

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