Leslie Griffith, RN: Why I Became a Pediatric Oncology Nurse

DocWire News recently profiled beloved oncology nurse Leslie Griffith. After the discovery of a benign, rare bone tumor in Leslie’s neck at the age of 18, the life-changing experience led Leslie to change her major and head to nursing school. Leslie is retiring after 40+ years of service, and has seen advances in oncology medicine/surgeries/techniques, and is continuing to give back to the next generation as part of her legacy. This interview details her journey, and the legacy she leaves.

DocWire News: Tell us why and how you began a career in nursing?

I became a nurse because of my own personal patient experience. At age 18, I was in a horseback riding accident which brought me to a hospital emergency room. The x-ray showed I had not broken my neck. However, fortunately, an astute radiologist noticed an abnormality on my second vertebrae. Following scans and a bone biopsy, I was diagnosed with a rare type of benign bone tumor. The case was discussed at a tumor board and consulted by physicians at 3 different medical centers.

Although the tumor was not malignant, there was concern that if the tumor grew locally, it could cause spinal cord compression, which could have potential for paralysis. A multi-center consensus was to remove the affected bone. I then underwent bone removal from my hip to be used for bone grafting, tumor excision from my neck, a metal plate and internal wire fixation of 4 spinal vertebrae, and metal Vinkie and Krutchfield Tongs placed in my skull to keep me immobilized on a Stryker Frame for two different surgeries.

Even though my tumor was not malignant, there were so many ways my experience has helped me relate to patients and their families—whether it be uncertainty and fear of the unknown, encountering the unique “language” of medical jargon, going through diagnostic testing, having a bald head, blood transfusions, being in a hospital for an extended time and many holidays, or despair when being told I needed more surgery.

The experience changed my life. One day I was the picture of perfect health and then within weeks went to wondering if I would be paralyzed or even alive. I no longer took my health or life for granted.

There were many people who supported me as I had left to attend college in another state, especially family and friends. I was also profoundly touched and inspired by the dedication, commitment, expertise, and compassion I received from so many nurses and doctors during my surgeries and hospitalizations. One of these individuals was a nurse—Mrs. McHue. She offered an unwavering sense of presence when I was devasted about needing more surgery, encouraged me when I felt most vulnerable, was always my advocate and offered so many thoughtful acts of kindness. It’s because of her and my personal experience that inspired me to become a nurse.

Why did you choose to specialize in Pediatric Oncology?

My first few years of nursing included working in an acute care unit, a pediatric ICU trauma unit, and a burn unit. When arriving at Stanford in 1984, there were two separate places in which children received treatment. One setting was a small community 80-bed hospital for kids with chronic conditions. The other setting was an embedded pediatric unit within the main Stanford Hospital, which included an acute care unit, NICU, and PICU. When Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford was completed in 1991, these two settings merged. The original concept of the hospital was to have units set up by ages, with the exception of having a NICU, PICU and the hematology-oncology-BMT units. I wanted to work with all ages of children and after working in a trauma ICU, wanted to work with more kids who were not intubated, as I like being able to verbally engage with the kids—thus the decision to begin a career in oncology.

Other appealing aspects of oncology included the research and progress in the field, getting to know the kids and families as treatment is a long-term course, variation of acuity from stable to critical, and a sense of being able to be holistic in addressing the needs of the patient. I have been able to witness the development of many new drugs, treatments, and procedures which have greatly impacted the increased survival rate and improvement of treatment related symptoms. It’s simply staggering that children diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia have the possibility of a 90 percent cure rate!

When I see former patients who later return, it’s incredibly rewarding to know that I was part of a team who contributed to a child’s survival. There is great hope with the progress accomplished, and yet also a motivation for ongoing research and treatments where there are still further strides to be made with some types of cancer.

What advice would you give people looking to get started in nursing?

 A career in nursing offers so many options for choices to choose from—such as a variety of departments within a hospital, outpatient settings, clinics, research, home care, commercial, pharmaceutical and product companies. And there are so many different areas to focus on—from being a clinician, managerial roles, administrative roles, educational, and numerous Advanced Practice specialties. It’s possible to custom design where and how much time and energy to put into one’s career, and a sense of flexibility to make adaptive changes. In whatever role is chosen, nurses are contributing in their own way to being of service to others, which is intrinsically personally satisfying and rewarding.

Nursing is often a juggling act with multiple demands. And yet, it is still possible to make a difference in others’ lives in increments of moments and minutes. There is nothing more precious to any person than health or the gift of life. And as healthcare professionals, we can contribute to enhancing and sustaining health. And when that is not possible, providing both compassion and support to the patient and family with palliative and end-of-life care.

Forty years in the nursing profession is commendable. Please share a memorable experience with one of your patients.

First, I will say that ALL patients and families are heroic as they go through any medical or health challenge. I have often told parents that if I ruled the world, I would give them a gold medal for what they do for their children. Families will do whatever it takes to support their child—whether that means giving up a job, driving 4-6 hours for appointments, flying across the country or from other countries, re-locating temporarily or permanently, being separated from the family unit, increased expenses, language and cultural barriers, and the emotional anguish in a loss of childhood innocence in facing many difficulties. One mother said to me, “If asked to fly to the moon to help my son, I would do it without hesitation!” This is an example of the unconditional love parents have for their child, which is beautiful to witness and be in the space of.

I will give a recent example of a patient I worked with who brings a smile to my heart and satisfaction to my soul. One of my teenage patients was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia two days after his high school graduation, which led to a 186-day hospitalization. The lengthy hospitalization was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant he couldn’t leave his room, go to the teen lounge, or have his siblings or friends visit. I was able to relate to this teen as I also had been diagnosed with my bone tumor shortly after graduating from high school and in the prime of life. I knew what it felt like to be discouraged when told you had to go through one more thing you weren’t expecting. For me, it was needing more surgery, and for him, it was needing a bone marrow transplant. I helped be present to his authentic feelings, but also offered a sense of hope. He was one of the few patients over the years I had shared my own story with. I also helped connect him to another teen who had gone through a bone marrow transplant, so they could communicate by text.

I brought in a DVD about a remarkable and inspiring man I had briefly met at a film festival based on his life story growing up with a disability in Africa. The man, Emmanuel, had also overcome much in his life and had inspired hundreds and thousands of people. The message was that we don’t always have a choice in what happens to us, but we do always have a choice in how we choose to respond to what happens in our life.

Upon my return from a Family Leave of Absence to support my dying father, I had a note waiting for me from this teen. He thanked me for sharing my story, for connecting him with another teen, and sharing the uplifting DVD. He stated, “I’m finally going to college now. Thanks for inspiring me to get there. You have inspired me to help others who are in a similar situation.” This young man is now a pre-med major at UCLA.

He later contacted me to let me know another way he is giving back to an organization that helps hospitalized kids. For his Make-A-Wish, he has designed three shirts to honor cancer survivors and Macy’s has offered to sell the shirts. Half of all proceeds will be donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He is a beautiful example of the personal growth and transformation which is possible—even in the midst of difficult and challenging times.

If you were to describe your career in a few sentences, how would you?

I will always treasure my years at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Medicine Children’s Health. I have had the chance to grow in every area of my life—personally, emotionally, intellectually, professionally, and spiritually. It has been a privilege to be of service to others, share a sense of humanity in moments of both triumph and despair; and ultimately witness the resiliency of the human spirit.