Caring And Coping In The Children’s Cancer Ward
By Kasey Ryan
She walks into the Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan, smiles and waves and heads toward the table. Her long chestnut-colored hair is freely flowing with perfect loose curls on the ends, and her Burberry scarf is neatly wrapped around her neck.
Her eyeliner is perfectly applied despite the freezing winter weather and harsh winds that have caused my own eyes to water and my eyeliner to smear under my eyes, making me resemble a football player.
“You wouldn’t believe the week I’ve had at work,” she says.
I immediately wish I looked even half as put together as her on my “rough weeks,” which usually have me rolling into places in the same sweatpants I’ve been wearing for the past three days, a ratty oversized hoodie, and a baseball hat to cover my unwashed hair. I guess stress affects us all very differently. I say this because by the looks of her perfectly applied make-up and perfect tan, any stranger wouldn’t know she’d had a rough week.
She takes off her stylish winter coat to reveal her black cardigan over her skinny name brand jeans. Anyone who doesn’t know her couldn’t imagine that just an hour and a half ago, this same stylish young woman who takes such pride in fashion and the latest trends, donned blue hospital scrub pants with a “Hairspray the Musical“ hooded sweatshirt, complete with bright hot pink crocs with children’s characters all over them in exchange for the adorable pair of black Christian Louboutin pumps she has on now.
When I point this out to her and tease her about this, especially about the crocs with the characters and the Broadway sweatshirt that we have made fun of others for wearing out in public, she laughs and explains that that is what “her kids,” which is what she calls her miniature-sized clients at work, like to see her in.
She is Jackie Markowitz, a 23 year-old Westchester native, who has seen more heartache in her life than most people in her line of work. Watching young children suffer and fight tirelessly against deadly illnesses while parents sit by their bedsides in constant prayer is unfortunately something Markowitz witnesses daily while working as a child life specialist at the New York Presbyterian Children’s Hospital.
Markowitz ’s job includes numerous duties that if not physically draining, are emotionally draining. She works in the pediatric intensive care unit and the pediatric cardiac intensive care unit, which means she mostly works with babies, children, and teens with intense heart or organ problems, or with various forms of cancer.
In these units, her duties involve working with the young patients and their families and helping them adjust to the process of hospitalization. She focuses on the patient’s psychosocial development by doing medical play to help prepare the young patients for procedures or tests, which she also accompanies them to along with their guardians.
She not only focuses on the patient, she also teaches coping and management techniques to the patient’s parents and siblings, trying to help them not only understand, but deal with the severity of the diagnoses and the steps that need to be taken. Basically, she is a rock for both the patient and families during this difficult time in their lives.
Jackie Markowitz says she is learning to cope with the realities of her job.
Some people may feel that they could never do the job she does because they may get too attached to the patients and would literally fall apart witnessing them get weaker day after day until they are no longer there. How can anyone in Markowitz ’s profession deal with as many good-byes as she has had to say, and as many parents she has witnessed break down when told their child would not likely make it to their next birthday. Does she have to keep her distance while working, and not forming close attachments with the patients and their families“
Markowitz disagrees. “I personally operate that when I stop getting attached to the kids and treating each kid like he/she is special, then I am no longer doing the best job I can be doing,” she says.
How does she continue to get up day after day with a smile on her face after losing so many little ones that she had grown to love? One loss once in awhile is bad enough, but when it is multiple times a month, sometimes even a week, and when it is a child, someone who has never gotten the chance to lose their first tooth, or have their first kiss, or even graduate from middle school, how does she cope?
“While I do get attached to my kids and love the line of work that I am in, there is definitely a need to separate work from life, and this is a very difficult process that has taken me years to get better at, but over time I’ve learned how to cope and what helps me cope, just like I try to teach my kids [patients],” she says.
Markowitz continues: “It is extremely difficult but I try my hardest not to take my work home with me, but what makes it even harder is that it’s not just numbers at a desk, it is children and their families and real people, which definitely make it tough. That being said, the fact that I do have a great support system at work and at home too helps a lot...and over time I’ve learned that when I get home from a particularly hard day at work, I need some quiet time to decompress, and I’m slowly learning how to take that for myself.”
Markowitz’s job may bring extensive amounts of heartache, but she makes sure to remind me that it can be just as rewarding. “Honestly, the kids make it all worth it,” she says. “There is nothing more fulfilling than watching a kid do something she thought she couldn’t. Just to watch one of my patients cope well for the first time at a blood draw or an echo and seeing the look on her face when she realizes she did it and she CAN overcome her fear is this amazing, indescribable feeling.”
She says she has been rewarded many times for helping the families through these tough times, including a recent encounter in which a patient who was heading home after a lengthy hospital stay.
“Her mother just wrote me this long letter thanking me and basically, at the end of the letter, she wrote something like if her daughter did get the chance to grow up, she would be honored to have her grow up and be half the person I was..,” she says, blushing and becoming uncomfortable with talking nicely about herself.
After a while, the subject turns to Halloween at work and Markowitz describes her little patients’ costumes and the sugar high many of them got from the candy. She says she wore a superhero costume to work and that the kids loved it. She probably didn’t even need a costume because her scrubs, Hairspray hoodie and pink crocs with characters on them would have been just fine.