Pediatric Nurse Uses Her Own Cancer Experience to Forge Connection with Patient
When 11-year-old Debbie Flores arrived for her first appointment at UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital, she searched the room for a friendly face. Meeting for the first time, her eyes landed on Amy Bell, a pediatric oncology and hematology nurse.
Debbie, who was to undergo her first chemotherapy treatment for the pre acute lymphoblastic leukemia she’d been diagnosed with two weeks before, responded to the openness and compassion she sensed in Bell. Bell explained every step of the process as she worked with Debbie’s port-a-cath, a small implanted device through which her medicine would be delivered. Over a year of treatment, Debbie and Bell gradually formed a bond of trust and affection, marked by warm hugs and healing doses of listening that have helped guide Debbie through her treatments.
The connection between patient and care team is an important part of the healing process. A survivor of lymphoma herself, Bell is keenly aware of the difficulty of cancer treatment, and the world of difference that a compassionate, supportive care team can make. Bell, a nurse at Mattel Children’s Hospital for 12 years, shares her own experience with cancer to forge connections with patients.
“We fight for trust,” says Bell. “It’s the most important layer in healing. The patients and their families long for reassurance, and we are here to provide it. While I was unfortunate to be diagnosed with lymphoma, I feel lucky to share my experiences as a cancer survivor to build bridges to these patients and their families.”
Years before she considered becoming a nurse, Bell, who grew up in suburban Detroit, watched her grandmother struggle with cancer. She often did not understand the information that doctors provided her family.
“Back then, it felt like doctors would speak in a foreign language,” says Bell. “Despite that, I learned to lean into the hurt and be a consistent pillar for my grandmother. Early on, I recognized that I wanted to hold the hands of those walking through that level of pain.”
From that experience, Bell decided that the best way to dispel fear was to demystify the language of medicine for patients. She graduated from nursing school in 2003 in Detroit.
Enamored with life and thirsting to see the world, Bell became a traveling nurse and worked at various hospitals from coast to coast. In addition, Bell volunteered for Operation Smile, and participated in medical missions around the world, visiting Africa, South America, and South East Asia to help during cleft lip and palate surgeries. These diverse experiences with people around the world convinced Bell of the universal importance of connecting on a personal level with each of her patients.
Bell’s first two assignments as a traveling nurse were at pediatric hospitals in Southern California and Northern California. California kept tugging at this Midwesterner, and in 2007, she joined the pediatric nursing team at UCLA Health as a float nurse. More than a decade into her career at UCLA Mattel, she spends most of her time working with pediatric cancer patients, such as Debbie, undergoing chemotherapy.
Diagnosed in 2014 with lymphoma, Bell began a treatment journey that eventually led to her remission less than a year later. She turned to her best friends who provided critical support as she dealt with the challenges that can accompany chemotherapy.
“During my own chemo, we’d think of a theme. We would all wear colored wigs or peacock feathers and not let it be a depressing time,” says Bell.
Bell, who remains cancer-free, maintains an upbeat approach with patients, guiding them through sensitive topics such as pain, hair loss and loneliness.
“Witnessing families emotionally wrestle with their child or loved one’s diagnosis can be hard,” she says. “All you can do is be there in the moment with them, explain in plain English what is going on, and give them a hug.”
Bell finds balance in her work with young patients because “they don’t wallow in their sadness like some adults do. They want to play, color and laugh. The more I can dive into that part, the better I can take care of them.”
Bell and Debbie’s connection extends beyond the hospital. Debbie and her mother, Lydia Flores, will join Bell this year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s “Light the Night Walk” in November. Moreover, Bell has joined Debbie and her mother for the UCLA Bruin Run Walk, a fundraiser for the Chase Child Life Program at Mattel Children’s Hospital that takes place every June.