Caitlyn Mortus learned she had cancer the second day of spring break in the seventh grade. The 13-year-old had been hit in the face with a soccer ball, and when the pain and swelling didn’t improve, she knew something was wrong.
A biopsy revealed Burkitt lymphoma, a fast-growing cancer of the lymphatic system. Mortus was admitted to MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital where she received five rounds of intense chemotherapy over six months.
Now 23 and cancer-free, she credits that experience with her decision to become a pediatric oncology nurse at MD Anderson. Recently, Mortus celebrated her one-year anniversary working at the hospital.
“My journey with cancer is 100% the reason I became a nurse,” she says. “All through nursing school, my goal was to return to MD Anderson so I could support kids with cancer, the same way my nurses supported me. They helped me through such a hard time in my life, and I wanted to do the same.”
During childhood lymphoma treatment, art classes gave her something to look forward to
During her time as a patient, Mortus participated in a number of activities designed to keep young cancer patients active while receiving cancer care. She particularly enjoyed art classes offered through MD Anderson Children’s Art Project, which sells merchandise like greeting cards, ornaments and apparel inspired by patients’ art. Sales benefit programs that support pediatric cancer patients.
“The classes made my hospital stay more bearable and gave me something to look forward to each day,” she recalls. “They were the one thing that got me out of bed – I did not want to miss art class.”
One of her best memories is when she and another patient became fast friends, and created colorful art projects together at a hospital camp for kids battling cancer. The girls spend many hours drawing and painting, and Mortus was delighted when their artwork was featured on cards and gifts sold by the Children’s Art Project. To this day, Mortus’ ladybug art continues to be a hit, and is featured on the latest Children’s Art Project products.
A nurse’s unique understanding of childhood cancer
Working as a registered nurse where she was treated as a child is “a blessing,” Mortus says, and gives her special insight into how kids are feeling.
“I can relate, because I’ve been there myself,” she says. “I know what good days look like, and I know what bad days look like.”
As a patient, Mortus formed special bonds with many of her nurses. To this day, she keeps in touch with some of those who cared for her a decade ago. When she was hired, Mortus paid a surprise visit to one of her favorite nurses from her patient days to say “thank you.”
As a nurse, she has the same opportunity each day to form similar lasting relationships with the patients in her care.
“The relationships that MD Anderson nurses form with patients are one of the things that make this place so special,” she says. “Every day, I come here to help children and young adults and give them hope – that’s my favorite thing.”