Care at Brenner Illuminates Career Path

Rachel Oliver Smith now works at the children’s hospital where she once received cancer treatments

Rachel Oliver Smith knows precisely what the young cancer patients at Brenner Children’s Hospital are going through.

A little more than 20 years ago, she was one of them—a little 4-year-old girl at Brenner Children’s facing the enormity of T-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

“I remember picking toys out of the toy chest in the playroom, Christmas parties with other kids who were hospitalized and, of course, the medical scans and chemotherapy,” she says, describing some of her memories from the two years she spent receiving treatments.

“What I remember most about my time as a patient, though, is the love and positive influence that the nurses gave to my family and me.”

The care she received saved her life but changed it in other ways, too.

teaparty

Rachel Oliver Smith (left) with nurse and friend Nancy Smith enjoying a tea party in 1998

‘A Bit of a Brat’

Rachel claims that as a young patient, she was “a bit of a brat.” She once kicked one of her doctors.

Her experience with nurses, though, was different.

“They were just there all the time, and they would laugh with you and be silly with you,” she says.

The treatments eventually pushed her cancer into remission. Upon graduating from high school, the Davidson County native says she thought about becoming a doctor but changed her mind after getting sick following her first college biology class.

“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.’”

She graduated from the nursing program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington in 2013 and landed a job working in adult medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. In March 2015, she transferred to pediatrics to take a position as a registered nurse on the hematology and oncology unit.

Reunion

That move reunited Rachel with Nancy Smith (no relation), one of the nurses who cared for her when Rachel was sick and an inspiration for her career. The pair had developed a close bond during Rachel’s illness.

“She came to my house and had a tea party with me,” Rachel says of one of Nancy’s visits in 1998.

“Nancy watched me grow up and is like family to me. Not only did she help treat my illness, she helped me emotionally. When I look back on my time as a patient, I’m inspired by the love and care Nancy and so many of the other nurses gave to me and my family. I’m truly honored to work alongside them.”

Nancy, a pediatric nurse for 40 years, says her former patient turned friend and colleague is an inspiration to those around her.

“Rachel showed such bravery as a patient, and now she gets to help impart that bravery in other young patients as a nurse herself,” Nancy says. “She has such a commitment and devotion to her patients and their families. She is one-of-a-kind, and our unit is so blessed to have her.”

A Patient’s Perspective

As a cancer survivor of nearly 20 years, Rachel still checks in as a patient at the children’s hospital every two years for a follow-up evaluation. Brenner Children’s lets former patients, regardless of their age, have their checkups at the children’s hospital.

When she shifts back to work mode, Rachel relies on some of the lessons she’s learned, including one sweet little trick.

“I taught myself how to swallow pills using Skittles,” she says, “so I’ve used that on quite a few of my patients.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article includes information first published in a story in the Winston-Salem Journal on June 3, 2016.