Editor's note: This is the third story in a three-part series exploring the lifelong bonds that can form between UNM physicians and patients when they meet in a moment of crisis.
UNM pediatric oncologist Stuart Winter, MD, was pleasantly surprised recently when he encountered former patient Courtney Nelson at UNM Hospital, where she is now a colleague.
“I was on my way to the emergency room one day and there she was in scrubs, saying she was an EKG tech in the ER,” says Winter, vice chair for research in the Department of Pediatrics. “It has been great to see her at UNM.”
That afternoon encounter was a far cry from their first meeting, when an 11-year-old Nelson was newly diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer mainly seen in children.
Now 19, Nelson remembers the first days of her illness. She had always been athletic, so it was puzzling when she began complaining about being out of breath and having intense backaches after soccer. One episode was so intense that concerned parents took her to the UNM emergency room.
“All the tests were looking fine and we were getting ready to leave when the final x-ray came back,” she says. “I can still remember everyone gathering around to look at it.” There, sitting atop her right lung, was a tumor – the cause of the breathlessness – that had threaded into her spine.
“They said it was a miracle I had not become paralyzed,” she remembers. Following the diagnosis, more tests were ordered and surgery was scheduled to remove the tumor. Then came rounds of chemotherapy and radiation – and ensuing complications.
“I probably was on the sixth floor (in UNM Children’s Hospital) 80 percent of the time that year,” she says. “The staff was awesome.”
Nelson watched and asked questions when nurses entered the room. Her fascination with medicine stayed with her. Her father, who also has a medical technology background, helped her find the position at UNM.
She still gets annual checkups and continues to be in good health.
“Sometimes I think I can relate to patients in a different way,” Nelson says. “I’ll see them frightened and I can tell them that I used to be a patient here and that I received my diagnosis in the ER and that the team here is excellent.”
She pauses. “This is going to sound weird, but the medical team was so awesome, I actually look back and think of it as a good year.”
Winter has kept up with the Nelson family through the years. “I used to run into her dad at high school sporting events,” he says. “We’d sit together and watch her brothers play.”
“It is so good to see how she has turned from this very sick adolescent girl into a young woman,” he continues. “We began as her medical home, and now UNM has turned into her professional home as well.”