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Jolene M. Swanson, nurse practitioner, has been the family medicine provider at Mayo Clinic Health System in Kenyon since 2011. When her daughter was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) and began a challenging course of treatment, however, Swanson experienced life from a new perspective — as the parent of a patient with cancer.
In December 2010, 6-year-old Natalie Swanson began experiencing pain in her legs. “Natalie was in gymnastics. We thought she had suffered an injury that would eventually go away,” says Swanson. “When the pain was still there in January, we became more concerned.”
During a family visit with their dad, Tim Swanson, stationed at Fort McCoy, Wis., Natalie was in so much pain that her parents took her to the emergency department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Sparta. “Even with strong medication, she kept crying uncontrollably and couldn’t walk on her own,” says Swanson.
Natalie was admitted to Saint Marys Hospital in Rochester for tests. On March 1, 2011, she was diagnosed with ALL — cancer of the blood and bone marrow. “At the time, it didn’t matter to us that ALL is the most common form of childhood cancer with a high cure rate,” says Swanson. “Natalie was fighting for her life.”
Carola A S. Arndt, M.D., Donna L. Betcher, nurse practitioner, and the Pediatric Hematology/Oncology team in Rochester guided Natalie through treatment. “Dr. Arndt was our rock at the start of treatment,” says Swanson. “She brought us through the difficult early stages. And Donna Betcher will always have a special place in our hearts, because Natalie saw her the most and developed a close bond.”
Support from Kenyon Swanson’s co-workers rescheduled appointments and addressed urgent needs when she needed to be away from the clinic. “They took care of everything, including hugs on a bad day,” says Swanson.
Swanson’s patients still ask about Natalie. “My patients were so understanding if I had to cancel or reschedule,” she says. “I tried not to miss too much work. My parents, especially, and other family and friends helped out.”
Although Swanson is a family medicine provider, she was not prepared for the experience of fighting her child’s cancer.
“It’s tricky to navigate the health care system, to learn which provider does what for the patient and what questions to ask of whom,” she says. “ You have to be your own advocate. I’m now far better able to advocate for my patients and empower them to do so.”
Natalie completed her last round of chemotherapy on May 31, 2013. She will continue to have regular checkups, but today she is cancer-free. She has regained much strength and is happy.
“We are fortunate to have Mayo Clinic on our side,” says Swanson. “It gives us confidence to know that we have the best possible care and support right in our own backyard.”