Kaiser Permanente Oakland nurses Carlina Fernandes (back row, second from right) and Jean Quigley (front row, first on right) personally fundraise to bring pediatric oncology patients such as Alfonso Gomez (front row, second from left) on all-expense paid trips to a convention where ‘no one is alone.’
Alfonso Gomez, 20, originally went to CancerCon with his Kaiser Permanente Oakland nurses and a handful of oncology patients “out of curiosity.”
“I thought it would just be patients telling their cancer stories with health care professionals listening,” said Gomez, a full-time student in the Bay Area who has acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Instead, Gomez said the trip to the young adult cancer convention was about “connecting and meeting new people who have gone through life experiences like your own. It was about finding another family that just gets it.”
Everyone Should Go
“It” is what it’s like to live with cancer, a disease that Carlina Fernandes, RN, and Jean Quigley, RN, know well after 55 years combined nursing experience, all in pediatrics and mostly in oncology.
Fernandes has held positions in the Kaiser Permanente Oakland pediatrics department, the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center pediatric intensive care unit and the oncology department since 1992. Quigley has only worked in pediatric-oncology, starting in her native New Zealand in 1991. “That is my patient population,” she said simply.
In 2015, the colleagues volunteered at their first CancerCon, founded in 2007 by Stupid Cancer. “We walked in without knowing what it was and left thinking that every young person with cancer should get to go,” Fernandes said.
The Denver convention is organized with sessions for survivors, advocates, clinicians and caregivers on topics geared to each audience — from how to apply for college to dealing with infertility after chemo. Up to 600 people attend annually.
“CancerCon fills a unique void for survivors,” Quigley said. “Every single person is accepted, their experience validated. You can’t go anywhere else and have that happen on that scale.”
On the Road
Inspired by their first convention, the nurses returned to work and, through fliers and help from social worker colleagues, invited patients 18 years or older who wanted to go the following April. (Younger patients can go but need to bring a parent or caregiver.)
The second year the duo took two patients; the third year, six. This past spring, they took seven.
They fundraise on their own time year-round to cover airfare, hotel, meals, and convention fees of about $1,000 per patient.
While traveling, the two are not nurses but leaders, Quigley said. They tap into their experience as mothers of five young adults. They help budget, check in at airports, and with any other “adulting” skills some patients may need after lives spent largely in the hospital or recuperating at home.
‘A Close Bond’
In the future, Quigley said they’d like to share the experience with more volunteers and patients as Kaiser Permanente assesses how to make the experience accessible for all Northern California pediatric oncology patients.
Today, the nurses revel in the friendships patients forged.
“Our kids didn’t even know each other before CancerCon because they didn’t see one another in clinic or in the hospital if they relapsed,” Fernandes said. “Now they all want to sustain relationships.”
There is now a new patient young adult support group, and two previous patient attendees have joined the medical center’s patient advisory council.
“I have to thank the Kaiser Permanente pediatric nurses,” said Gomez, who is in remission and off all medications.
“They worked so hard to have us come on this trip. We all share a close bond because they were the ones who took care of us and wanted us to experience this event. I will always be grateful to them.”