Katrena Rockeymore

Katrena Rockeymore

Broward Health employee Debbie Eldredge is known for her positive energy.

Dana Tabib

A Childhood Cancer Survivor Finds Her Calling in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology Nursing

Although Dana Tabib's cancer diagnosis at age seven drastically altered her childhood and challenged her family, it has made her a more compassionate and insightful nurse - and a walking reminder of the resilience and hope of survivorship.

As a nurse manager in pediatric hematology-oncology at Broward Health Medical Center, Dana has devoted her nursing career to helping children facing cancer and other blood disorders, such as sickle cell anemia. “I wanted to go into nursing so that when I was at work, I would think to myself, ‘I was in that bed,’” Dana said. “Because I was a patient for so long, I knew I could relate to our patients and help make a difference.” Dana was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), one of the deadliest blood cancers according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, in April 1979. After undergoing initial treatment near her home in Indianapolis, Dana got a grim prognosis and learned a bone marrow transplant was her only option.

“Doctors told my mom that there were no other treatments available, and if we stayed in Indianapolis, I would pass away,” said Dana, adding that there were no clinical trials. “Even with the bone marrow transplant, they told us that I had only a 13 percent chance of survival.” At that time, there were only four hospitals in the United States doing pediatric bone marrow transplants, so her family traveled across the county to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle.

A bone marrow transplant replaces unhealthy blood-forming cells (blood stem cells) with healthy ones from a donor. The donor’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA), a protein found on most cells in the body, must match or closely match that of the patient. The body’s immune system uses HLA to determine which cells belong in the body and which do not, which explains why the HLA must match to prevent the body from fighting off the donated cells.

Dana, who is the youngest in a large family, was fortunate to have two siblings who were a match to donate bone marrow. Her 14-year-old sister was her bone marrow donor, her 16-year-old brother was her platelet donor, and her mom was her white blood cell donor.

September 17th marks 44 years since Dana underwent the bone marrow transplant that saved her life. “I don’t often talk about it because I want the focus to be on our patients,” Dana said. However, her childhood experience has shaped her career in many ways.

Paying it forward

Dana initially thought she wanted to be a teacher because of the influence of a cousin who tutored her after she missed all of second grade and nearly all of third grade due to her cancer treatment. She studied education and planned for a teaching career, but when she had the unexpected blessing of becoming a mom, she decided to stay home with her children, who are now 29, 26 and 19 years old. Doctors had told Dana she would never be able to get pregnant due to her many rigorous medical treatments.

When her youngest child went to preschool, she was determined to start a new career. “My mom was always talking about how I needed to pay it forward after having had cancer,” said Dana, whose mom recently turned 80. “Whenever there was a Leukemia & Lymphoma Society event, she ‘voluntold’ me to participate.” Those words stuck with Dana, and she felt called to nursing. She went back to school, and she landed a job as a staff nurse in the pediatric hematology-oncology department at Broward Health Medical Center. She eventually got promoted to be an assistant nurse manager and then a nurse manager.

Dana has been at Broward Health Medical Center for 13 years and loves her job. “I try to embrace servant leadership in nursing, so I can’t ask my team to do something that I am not willing to do myself,” said Dana, adding that they have an amazing team of nurses. “It keeps me grounded.” She also lives and works with the perspective of a cancer survivor. Of the experimental group of 20 children who received a bone marrow transplant during her time in Seattle, there are only two who survived. Dana keeps in touch with her fellow survivor.

“We were quite isolated from the rest of the world, and we formed some special bonds,” Dana said. She has also stayed in contact with her favorite nurse (who still works at the same hospital in Seattle) and her pediatric oncologist, Dr. Thomas Coates, who now works at the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles.

Caring for the whole child and the whole family

In her role at Broward Health Medical Center, Dana also works with the hospital’s palliative care team and childlife specialists to help children and their families cope with cancer. “It’s not just one physician or one nurse who helps a child – it’s the whole team,” she said. “A child may benefit tremendously from childlife specialists, art, dance, music or a therapy dog.” During her cancer treatment in the late 1970s, there wasn’t a defined role for childlife specialists, but there was a memorable nurse named Pam, who spent time with Dana and the other children. “She would bring in dolls and use them to explain how the procedures worked,” Dana said. “She had such a special ability to communicate with us as kids.”

Dana also vividly remembers that she wasn’t an easy-going cancer patient. “I really was not a nice patient,” Dana admitted. “I wasn’t friendly, and when I didn’t feel well and didn’t want to be woken up, I took it out on my nurses.” Decades later, Dana finds herself very drawn to pediatric patients with that demeanor. “Sometimes they just need someone to listen to them and let them release their anger and frustration,” Dana said. “The majority of our patients feel like they have to be strong for their parents, and that is such a heavy burden for a child to carry.”

Dana is also aware of the weight on parents’ shoulders. “My mom was a single mom with a big family,” Dana said. “I was extremely lucky that she was incredibly strong, but she was also very honest with me about how hard it was when I was sick.” Her mom worked as an insurance agent in Indiana when Dana was first diagnosed, but she had to stop working when they traveled to Seattle to spend four months there for Dana’s bone marrow transplant. She found a creative way to help support her family while they were living in the hospital’s apartment. “My mom brought her sewing machine, and she started doing seamstress work for the nurses at the hospital,” Dana recalls. “She made some beautiful wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses.”

Dana helped create a program to support parents at Broward Health Medical Center after seeing a mom who was so exhausted from always being at her child’s bedside, that she was losing her hair and her health was suffering. “Cup of Comfort” is held once a week to provide support and connection for parents who have children with cancer. She also pays attention to a sick child’s siblings, as she remembers her brothers and sisters coming to visit and taking turns sleeping on a cot beside her. “I love our patients so much, but I also have a real soft spot for their siblings,” she said. “It’s not only traumatic for the child who is diagnosed but also for their siblings.”

Sharing her perspective with nurses

Broward Health Medical Center is a teaching hospital, and on a recent Tuesday morning, Dana was fielding questions from students during rounds. She works to guide them academically and professionally. “You need to have that passion to be a nurse, and you need to have an extra passion to be a pediatric hem-onc nurse,” she said. “We meet our patients and families when they are raw from just being told they have cancer or sickle cell disease and their lives are turned upside down, and we are there for them.”

Some pediatric hem-onc nurses struggle emotionally at first, but Dana says they usually come to an understanding.

“Something just sort of clicks, and you realize, ‘I have my 12-hour shifts to make a difference in this child’s life,’ and that’s a profound moment,” said Dana, adding that their work puts their own lives into perspective. Reflecting on her unusual path, Dana’s heart is full, but she says there is a lot that she wishes the world knew about childhood cancer. “Even though they are our most vulnerable patients, they are absolute warriors, and they have the capacity to persevere through things we can’t even imagine,” Dana said. “They have a strength and a spirit that is truly unknown.”

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