The Paediatric Oncology Ward - A Surprisingly Happy Place

Originally written January 25th 2014

Whenever I tell people about my interests in medicine (child medicine and cancer) or about my placement in Sydney, I’m almost always met with the same response – “oh no, that’s so sad! I don’t know how you deal with it” or “gosh that’s depressing!”

Every time, I am left with the difficult task of explaining to them that, surprisingly, those statements are pretty far from the truth.

Now, I’m not for one minute trying to suggest that a children’s cancer ward is the happiest place on earth or that terribly tragic, saddening things don’t happen there. What I am saying though, is that kids with cancer are still kids. They don’t mope around crying all day – in fact throughout my unfortunately short lived stint in this field, the sight of a sad or grumpy child has been a relative rarity. Instead, the children I’ve met have almost always been smiling, happy and even excited to see the medical team on the ward round.

It’s weird, isn’t it? These children, who have mostly lost their hair, who experience daily discomfort, nausea and exhaustion from their aggressive and punishing treatment regimens are still so wonderfully uplifting and positive. What’s the secret to their cheerful bravery? Well firstly, they’re kids. They have this amazing ability to cope and adapt to the adverse situations with which they’re faced – when young children fall off bikes, they get back up and carry on riding. When teenagers get dumped or fail an exam, they move on and get past it. It’s part of their identity as children to bounce back, to deal with their predicament with a smile on their face and to share that positivity with those lucky enough to be around them.

There is, however, another reason that children on the children’s cancer ward are so happy. I’m a firm believer that paediatric oncology is an area of medicine which attracts and requires a special breed of human being. These incredibly empathic, enthusiastic, dedicated and hard-working individuals provide so much more than just chemo, radiotherapy and a potential cure – they bring a smile, they bring funny jokes and a physical examination which plays out more like a fun game. They turn mundane, every day things into opportunities for happiness and laughter and they normalise and render manageable what is really a crazy, tumultuous journey for most children and families. The nurses, doctors, social workers, play therapists, domestic staff and many more are, in my opinion, holders of the second-place position for the “most inspiring people in medicine” award – only narrowly missing out to children with cancer, who sit uncomfortably at first position (but I guess I’m biased).

Yesterday, I had my last day at the hospital and what is also probably the last time I’ll work in Paediatric Oncology for a long time. I can’t explain how saddening it is to know that I won’t be in that environment for the foreseeable future but at the same time what a fantastic experience it’s been. Being in this amazing country, learning about an exciting and interesting medical specialty and working alongside some of the most professional and able staff in the field has been an absolute privilege. The fact that the placement had so much personal significance just made it all the more meaningful.

So this is a big thank you to the patients and staff at Sydney Children’s Hospital Paediatric Oncology. Thank you to the doctors for all of your fantastic teaching and patience with my lack of expertise. Thank you to the nurses for showing me the ropes, teaching me everything you have done and doing the unbelievable job you do. Thank you all for saving my life way back when and thank you for having me back. I won’t say goodbye, because I’m planning to be back some day. So, Sydney Children’s Hospital… See you later!

Image from Wikipedia, used under CC license