Motivated by her experience with breast cancer in college, Angie Long made a life-changing decision to become a child life specialist at Via Christi Hospital. She helps children and families cope with challenges of hospitalization and illness.
“I was in my junior year at K-State, when I was diagnosed,” Angie says. She’d found a large lump in her breast and it had spread to her lymph nodes, a startling surprise for the active coed. She left the office in tears after the first physician’s dire prognosis, but another doctor was more optimistic and her treatment was planned and begun: Eight rounds of chemotherapy at Cancer Center of Kansas in Salina, then 37 rounds of radiation over three months at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.
There, she wasn’t able to go to school or work, so she decided to volunteer in their Pediatrics unit. She enjoyed herself and found it so rewarding she decided that was what she wanted to do with her life.
“I’d never heard of a child life specialist,” Angie says. “I didn’t even know it was a job.” When she got back to Kansas State University, she took the classes to prepare for the work and served an internship at Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis, where she learned even more — and was noticed by her superiors. In 2002, she was hired.
“I can be kind of a goofball and a silly person, and I’ve been known to make animal noises and sing silly songs during a child’s procedure — like an IV start, anything they’re not sedated for,” she says. And that is just part of what a child life specialist does, she says.
“We’re here to make the kids feel more comfortable, sort of normalize the situation for them, so it’s less scary — because it’s always very stressful at the hospital. We help kids smile, get them up out of bed, and not crying, and we have lots of kid-friendly items like games and toys. And we help the parents cope, as well.”
The ChildLife Center has patients up to age 18, with a variety of illnesses from cancer or cerebral palsy, to diabetes or broken legs. “No two days are alike,” she says, “because we have different-age patients with different diagnoses and different families we’re trying to help.”
Her experience with cancer has helped her comfort and encourage children going through the same thing, and their parents.
“When you’re young, you feel as if you are the only one to go through this, the only one to lose your hair and all the other parts of it. But often, I can tell them that I know exactly what they mean because I went through the same thing and look at me now.” She says that knowledge also helps parents, and even other employees who are worried about someone close to them.
“All my experiences let me know I am very blessed and lucky,” Angie says. “My husband, Bryan, and I had been dating about a year before I got diagnosed and he stuck with me.” Married 12 years, the couple has two daughters, Kendall, 6, and Carsyn, 2.
She doesn’t worry about cancer coming back but, if it does, “I’ll just beat it. You get better faster when you’re positive.”
What have you learned from your journey through cancer?
That life is life and you can’t always control your path.
What helped you survive?
Of course, the medicine, doctors and surgeon saved me, but really I went on living my life. I fit the cancer into my life for the most part, not the other way around. I still went to school and enjoyed my friends, family and social life.
What advice can you share with others facing a life-changing illness?
You have control of your outlook and attitude and that makes a world of difference. But if you have a bad day and want to stay in your room, give yourself some slack. Then keep on moving.
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