Dealing with the tragedy of children with cancer is holistic at the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children, a part of the University Medical Center in Jackson. The Children’s Cancer Clinic, which opened in 1991, is on the hospital’s first floor. It is the only center in the state providing comprehensive care for children with cancer.
“We take care of children from all over the state,” said Dr. Gail Megason, the center’s director and a professor of pediatric hematology and oncology at the medical center. “We see 65 to 70 new oncology patients a year. That seems like a lot to us, but I keep reminding the staff that it’s for the whole state.”
The Batson Hospital has treated thousands of children stricken with leukemia and other cancers, helping bring survival rates for childhood cancers from less than 20 percent survival rates to more than 70 percent in the past 30 years. The hospital treats all patients regardless of their ability to pay. It shares research with the international medical community to help save children around the world.
“At any given time, we actively have about 20 children on therapy, and we follow them until they are adults,” Megason said. “One of the beauties of success is having a whole population of adults who were cured here.”
She fondly recalled a 14-year-old girl with a leukemia not usually seen in children. The patient’s siblings were not a compatible match for a bone marrow transplant. “She was my first unrelated transplant. We went to the National Donors Bank for a match,” Megason said. “This young lady just graduated from Ole Miss, taught English for a while and is now going to school to become a nurse.”
Often parents become nurses after witnessing their children’s cancer treatment at the Batson Hospital. Another of Megason’s bone marrow transplant patient’s mother is now the center’s head nurse.
“There are some heart-rending stories we can tell,” Megason relates. “That’s the joy of pediatric oncology, but there are still struggles with cancer of the nerve tissues and for some acute leukemia the survival rate is only 40 or 50 percent. We still have work to do.”
The beautiful clinic facility does not just concentrate on physical cures. There is a child life therapist who provides distraction activities for patients along with social workers and psychologists who assist and counsel the families. A hospital-wide school system, complete with superintendent, principal and teachers, keeps children on grade level. Teachers even meet with cancer patients in the clinic while they are undergoing treatment. Home bound services are set up, too.
“The whole family is going through the illness, and we intervene from the beginning,” the director points out. “It’s such a life changing event, especially now with two-parent incomes. One parent has to give up their job to take care of the child.”
Although childhood cancer is a great strain on families, Megason sees some families become much closer. The families are encouraged to be as normal as possible during this time.
Lee Anne Howard, a pediatric oncology social worker, is part of the team that provides for and supports patients and their families. Her own life-changing circumstances brought her into the Cancer Clinic nine years ago after working in a different part of the University Medical Center for eight years.
“I thought I couldn’t work with children with cancer. I thought it would be too sad,” she recalls. “I tried it and loved it. In other services, patients come and go. These patients become part of my family. I can follow them through and see them when they feel better.”
For families, she observes that the shock and fear of the cancer diagnosis is the biggest issue. After that, they are overwhelmed with the financial aspects. It is especially difficult for single parents.
“We do a lot of supportive counseling. We link them with another family with the same illness,” Howard said. “All our patients can qualify for some type of Medicaid program, even those with private insurance.”
She is especially proud of the great team at the Batson Children’s Cancer Clinic who all work together to heal patients and families. If needed, families are referred to outside counseling. The facility has the state’s only Ronald McDonald House where families of patients find a “home away from home.”
“Children are amazing and adjust so well. The grownups have more trouble than the children,” she says. “The majority are success stories and it’s not depressing or sad to work here.”
Although there are low times and relapses for patients, Howard is thrilled to see patients return with normal skin tones and heads full of hair.
“It’s a real special place,” she said. “It’s where my heart is and I could never leave. It’s a privilege to get to know these families.”
She and Megason pointed out that some Mississippi families consider taking their ill children to the nationally-known St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Some are even encouraged by friends and relatives to go out of state.
“We tell our parents to think where their support and family members are,” Megason said. “The care here is the same as what’s available at St. Jude’s. Many people don’t realize what we do. We would like to get the word out that we are here and having success treating childhood cancers.”
The Cancer Clinic was made possible by the Junior League of Jackson as the largest fundraising project ever undertaken by any Junior League. Megason pointed out that the Candle Lighters organization provides support to patients and families, and the hospital is always appreciative of contributions to continue their life-saving research.
The hospital’s namesake, Dr. Blair E. Batson, came to University Medical Center in 1955 when the Jackson campus opened. At that time, only one part of one wing was devoted to pediatric care. Batson lobbied for a separate facility. His philosophy was that children are not miniature adults. That philosophy continues to guide the children’s hospital today.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.