2002 Nurses of the Year

The following article was published in Nursing Spectrum on July 29, 2002:
"Leukemia Research Foundation Nurses of the Year Put Patients and Families First"
By Laurie Styrcula, RN, MA

LeeAnn Koyenga

A diagnosis of non-Hodgkins lymphoma had devastated the Weston* family. After all, their daughter, Natalie, was only 12 years old. Then, following chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Natalie had a relapse. Her only hope for survival was a stem cell transplant. The transplant brought about a brief remission, but she experienced another relapse. There was no cure for Natalie. Her four-year struggle had depleted her family's finances, inadequate insurance shifted the burden of care back on her parents, and the family experienced a sense of isolation. As the primary caregivers for their daughter, her parents found their world was limited to meeting Natalie's daily care needs.

On the Westons' wedding anniversary, a guest arrived at their home. LeAnn Kooyenga, RN, homemade cookies in hand, came to visit the Westons and assume Natalie's care so her parents could enjoy a well-deserved evening out.

This story would be unremarkable if Kooyenga were a visiting nurse, but she was not. The Westons' anniversary was her day off from the pediatric hematology/oncology clinic at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn, IL. Aware of the Westons' many needs, Kooyenga donated her time to care for Natalie and her family.

Kooyenga's dedication to the Westons prompted the family to nominate her as this year's Leukemia Research Foundation (LRF) Nurse of the Year recipient. This year, for the first time, three nurses share this honor. In addition to Kooyenga, certified pediatric nurse practitioners (NPs) Jill Perrone of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, Wauwatosa, and Kimberly Thormann of Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago, were also selected as LRF Nurse of the Year.

For the last six years, the LRF, based in Evanston, IL, has named a Nurse of the Year to acknowledge the round-the-clock professionalism, care, and emotional and educational support hematology/oncology nurses extend to patients and families in the Chicagoland area. This year, more than 60 nominations were received from 30 hospitals. Candidates were nominated by colleagues, patients, or patients' families; all three recipients of this year's award received numerous nominations. Each received a plaque, $500 for educational use, and $500 in discretionary funds to benefit their nursing units.

Kooyenga has worked in pediatrics since 1974; for the last eight years, she has worked in the pediatric hematology / oncology unit at Hope Children's Hospital. In fact, Kooyenga has spent her entire career at Hope, starting as a nurse's aide when she was 16 years of age. While caring for a niece who developed leukemia and eventually recovered, Kooyenga saw firsthand the needs of cancer patients and their families, cementing her resolve to help others.

Kooyenga relishes direct patient care at the clinic. Whether administering blood transfusions or chemotherapy or providing patient teaching, she shares her knowledge and skills with patients and their families. Because most of her patients are under treatment for at least two years, Kooyenga develops close relationships with them. All the nurses in her department make themselves available to families around the clock.

Kooyenga received three letters of nomination for her exceptional work with patients and their families. She was acknowledged for her work at the Hope Clinic and at Camp Quality, a camp for children with cancer. She was also recognized for her volunteer fund-raising patient care efforts.

Honoree Jill Perrone's route to pediatric hematology / oncology nursing was a circuitous one. A nurse since 1976, Perrone worked in various neonatal and adult intensive care settings before receiving her master's degree in 1981 and becoming irrevocably entrenched in pediatrics. In 1993, she began working at the 24-bed HOT (hematology/oncology transplant) unit at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. In her work as a certified pediatric NP, Perrone helps prepare children and their families for bone marrow and stem cell transplant procedures. She provides services ranging from physical exams to medication and lab test monitoring, home care coordination, patient teaching, and spinal tap assistance.

Perrone suspected she was nominated for the LRF award when a patient's mother asked her for a copy of her curriculum vitae. Perrone first met her patient, Nick, seven years ago when the then-four-year-old was diagnosed with acute myelocytic leukemia. He received a transplant using his father's bone marrow. Six years later, he relapsed; this time, his mother provided a life-saving stem cell transplant. The family, impressed with Perrone's care throughout the years, was one of two families to nominate her for the LRF award. Although he is now an outpatient, Nick recently chose to have his 11th birthday party at the hospital.

Another child Perrone has followed over the years is Marc Zider, who was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia when he was 13 months old (see "No Ordinary Boy" and "The Extraordinary Boy Inspires His Mom," pages 10 and 12). Marc and his mother, Nancy Lovendosk, recently visited Perrone at the HOT clinic.

"Jill Perrone is my lifeline," says Lovendosk. "She has spent a lot of time on the phone with me. She always calls me back; and if I'm upset, she is there for me. She answers my medical questions and concerns. She gets appointments with doctors for Marc when I can't seem to get an appointment. She does whatever she needs to do."

Kimberly Thormann, RN, MA, CPNP, the LRF's third 2002 Nurse of the Year, has a unique connection to her pediatric patients. She was in fifth grade when her father died of cancer; she never forgot how nurses cared for him and her family. Thormann became a nurse in 1995, and her love of children brought her to pediatric hematology/oncology. In 1996, she joined the pediatric stem cell transplant program at Children's Memorial Hospital. Since 2000, she has been working as a pediatric NP in that unit. Both children who nominated Thormann for her award attended a luncheon held in her honor at the hospital. Thormann is the second Children's Memorial nurse to win the LRF award.

As an NP, Thormann helps patients and their families understand stem cell transplant risks and benefits. Despite a 20% mortality rate, the procedure may be the last option for children who face life-threatening illnesses. Providing families with the education to make informed choices is an important part of Thormann's job.

Stem cell transplant candidates must be in remission prior to transplant. A course of radiation and chemotherapy prepares them for the procedure. Thormann helps assess patients, monitor their labwork, and address their daily concerns. Families and patients have many needs during their 30- to 40-day stay in isolation. Children are then discharged for 70 additional days of home-based isolation. During the transition from hospital to home, many families feel vulnerable. To bridge the gap, Thormann and the other nurses in her unit make themselves available 24 hours a day to meet families' needs. The resulting years of follow-up care help to forge strong bonds with these families.

To Thormann, her work is a labor of love. "These children are like little angels, with incredible perception and great tolerance for pain," she says. "They are amazing. They have given me so much and have asked for so little."

*The family's name has been changed to protect patient confidentiality.

Advocate Health Care
"2002 Nurse of the Year Award"

July 1, 2002, Oak Lawn, IL- A pediatric nurse specializing in the care of patients with blood cancers and other blood-related diseases at Advocate Hope Children's Hospital in Oak Lawn, Ill. has been selected by the Leukemia Research Foundation for it's "Nurse of the Year Award."

LeAnn Kooyenga, RN, of Evergreen Park, Ill., was presented the award in a brief ceremony on June 26.

"LeAnn was chosen because she is available around the clock and is thoroughly dedicated to the children and their families," said Linda Kabot, director of outreach at the Leukemia Research Foundation. "Nurses should be honored in some way; they are all so very special."
The Leukemia Research Foundation is a 56-year-old Chicago-area organization, with a mission to conquer blood-related cancers, fund research for causes and cures and enrich the quality of life of those affected by these diseases. For the past eight years, the foundation has been recognizing nurses for their professionalism and care of patients with blood disorders.

This year, some 60 nurses from 22 area hospitals were nominated. "LeAnn was nominated by three different patient families," said Kabot. "That is pretty outstanding."

"This award is truly special to me. I feel very honored to have been nominated for this award," said Kooyenga.

LeAnn has been working at Hope Children's Hospital since she was 16 years-old. She started as a nurse's aide and later went on to complete her registered nursing education at St. Francis School of Nursing. She has specialized in pediatric nursing for her entire career, but started working with pediatric cancer patients about eight years ago. "God, has given me a great opportunity to share his love by working with a special group of children-those who have cancer," she said.

In addition to her work as a nurse at the hospital, Kooyenga is involved with different patient support groups. She volunteers at Camp Quality, a camp for children who have cancer. LeAnn plans events for children, organizes fund-raisers and is involved with teen nights. She demonstrates her care and concern in numerous ways.

"Life is a miracle that too many people take for granted," she said. "I love seeing these children smile and laugh. I can help them do that by being a loving pediatric oncology nurse."