A Job Worth Every Tear

Photo by David Christopher

From left to right: Jeanne Scheel, RN, MSN, CPON, FNP-BC, a pediatric oncology nurse, teaches patient William Stark, Jr. how to play a video game on the Nintendo Wii. Scheel won the Brittany McKinney Remember Me Fund Award in December 2010, named after a former patient who passed away in 2007.
By Jennifer Martin

When Jeanne Scheel was named the second winner of the Brittany McKinney Remember Me Fund Award in May 2010, she didn’t think about the status or money that went with it. She was thinking about the girl for whom it was named: A young patient who lived life with spark before she passed away.

“Brittany was a fantastic girl,” remembered Scheel, RN, MSN, CPON, FNP-BC, a pediatric oncology nurse in Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago. “She was so spunky, feisty, funny. She loved to decorate her room at the hospital and just have a great time.”

Brittany was 13 when she died of acute myelogenous leukemia in December 2007. Her grandmother, Mary Scher, established the Remember Me Fund in Brittany’s honor to help nurses at the Medical Center continue their education. The first award was given in May 2009.

As a pediatric oncology nurse, Scheel does not have an easy job. There are days she finds a private corner and cries for awhile. However, she also spends many days laughing with her young patients and finding delight in their enthusiasm for life. Scheel is determined to support them, as well as their families. She used the financial stipend from the Remember Me award to attend seminars in holistic and palliative care.

“When a child gets a cancer diagnosis, the family is often in shock,” she said. “It helps to be able to listen, let them talk, answer their questions and find ways to make their journey easier.”

Scheel tells parents about support groups in the Medical Center, and suggests they purchase a spiral notebook to record detailed notes about their child’s treatment and daily progress. Depending on the patient’s case, she also can suggest a range of supportive care, such as aromatherapy.

“You are such an integral part of the family’s journey, as a nursing professional,” she said. “It’s important to listen, to walk with them, and give them the support and resources they need.”

Scheel, of Mokena, Illinois, has a special connection with parents because she is a parent herself. When she was young, she married, had three children in three years and stayed home as a full-time mother. When her children were in their teens, she felt the call of nursing school.

“I come from a medical family,” said Scheel, whose father and grandfather were physicians. “Based on my personality, I thought nursing would be a good fit for me.”

Scheel enrolled at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2004. “My kids were 100 percent behind me,” she said. “They were phenomenal.” Since then, she has gone on to receive a master’s degree and advanced practice training as a certified pediatric oncology nurse (CPON).

Her supervisor, Terrill Park, described her as a top-flight professional.

“Everyone on this floor looks up to her because of the way she conducts herself,” said Park, patient care manager on Comer 6. “She is a great patient advocate. She makes absolutely sure that these kids and their families get their needs met.”

Park noted Scheel also finds time to serve as a nurse preceptor, training other nurses on the unit. “She is always willing to take time from her busy day to talk to a nurse who has questions or needs help,” he said.

The position is not easy. Scheel sometimes goes home depressed when a child’s treatment isn’t going well, and she has even attended patient funerals to show support for families. However, she added the grief is eclipsed by her warm memories, and the joy she finds in her everyday relationships with the patients still fighting for their lives.

“Kids are so amazing, and so resilient,” she said. “I love their energy. I love their positive attitude.”

Scheel also admires their families and even stays in contact with parents once their children have left the hospital. “Some really mourn the loss of their ‘hospital’ family, even when their child is better,” she explained. “So we keep in touch through phone calls and e-mails for awhile.”

Brittany McKinney’s grandmother, Mary Scher, visited the staff on Comer 6 even after her granddaughter died. Scher would bring baked goods or gift certificates. “She’s a really wonderful lady,” said Scheel, who added she was “humbled and honored” to receive the Brittany McKinney Remember Me Award.

“The best part was, I got to see Brittany’s grandmother again that day, and give her a hug,” she said. “And she said she was doing OK.”