Caitlyn Mortus beat childhood cancer at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in Houston, Texas. Ten years later she returned to MD Anderson but this time she treated patients as a pediatric nurse.
“My journey with cancer is 100 percent the reason I became a nurse,” Caitlyn said, according to the hospital at the time. “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.”
Caitlyn Mortus was a bright, active student at WoodCreek Junior High until a bump to the face, she received during a normal soccer game altered the course of her life forever. Unlike the typical course of action for minor injuries, the damage to Mortus’ face just got worse.
Instead of healing like most scrapes and bruises, Mortus’ wound grew worse. Worried, the girl’s parents decided their daughter needed immediate medical attention. What the doctor discovered was nothing short of a nightmare when a biopsy confirmed the diagnosis of Burkitt lymphoma cancer, a malignancy of the lymphatic system with rapid growth.
Mortus spent six months in treatment at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, undergoing five cycles of aggressive chemotherapy.
The year was 2009.
A Blessing in Disguise
A Katy, Texas Magazine reporter, wrote, “Her soccer injury was a blessing in disguise since it led to her diagnosis and early treatment.”
To begin chemotherapy, Mortus had to leave school and later her parents hired a homeschool teacher to help Mortus remain up to speed on her educational studies.
“Being away from my friends was sometimes worse than the illness,” Mortus said in the Katy Magazine. When her treatment weakened her immune system her visitors were limited. At times her siblings weren’t allowed to visit her in the hospital.
Keep Kids Connected Organization
Lonely and feeling terribly disconnected from her friends Mortus created a nonprofit organization called “Keep Kids Connected.” The idea sprung from her motivation to use her parents’ laptops when they used them to perform their work-related projects.
Mortus finally received her own laptop, which opened up new possibilities. Keep Kids Connected solicited donations to buy small computer tablets for kids to help them stay connected with family, friends, and schoolmates while battling cancer.
An in-house newsletter published by M.D. Anderson one of the articles about the organization reported the following story:
“With the help of donations and fundraisers, the group purchased 631 computers and tablets, available to patients ages 3-18 who apply online. One of the recipients is 17-year-old Jennifer Gutierrez. She credits the program with making hospital visits easier. She overcame her battle with leukemia but regularly returns to MD Anderson for follow-up exams. Mortus and Gutierrez first met at Camp Star Trails, an annual overnight summer camp for MD Anderson patients and their siblings. A few years later, Gutierrez heard about the program and filed her request for a computer.”
“It made a big difference during treatments because I don’t have a lot of family nearby,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to keep in touch while I’m sitting in the exam room waiting for my appointments.”
For Mortus, her family, and their many supporters, Keep Kids Connected is about recognizing how cancer affects lives and using that insight to make a difference.
“It’s something little that we can do, but to see the excitement on someone’s face is truly inspiring,” Mortus said in a cheerful voice.
Becoming a Pediatric Nurse At the Same Hospital Where She Was Treated For Cancer
As a feisty young lady with much love in her heart for humanity and the heart of a lion, Caitlyn attributes her desire to become a pediatric oncology nurse at MD Anderson to her encounter with cancer when she was younger.
“My journey with cancer is 100% of the reason I became a nurse,” she says. “My dream from the beginning of nursing school has been to work at MD Anderson, giving back to the pediatric oncology community in the same manner that my nurses gave back to me. After they helped me through a bad patch, I felt compelled to return the favor.”
She found solace in painting lessons during her treatment for cancer as a child.
Mortus took part in a variety of programs created for young people like her who were undergoing cancer treatment. The MD Anderson Children’s Art Project, which features art workshops for kids with cancer and sells products like greeting cards, ornaments, and clothing with patient artwork on them, was a particular favorite. Product sales go toward initiatives that aid children with cancer.
“The classes made my hospital stay more bearable and gave me something to look forward to each day,” she said. “I would have stayed in bed all day if not for them; I did not want to miss art class.” While at a hospital camp for children with cancer, Mortus became a close friend with a girl and the two of them made colorful art projects together.
She was overjoyed to see the girls’ artwork on greeting cards and other merchandise produced by the Children’s Art Project. Mortus’ ladybug illustrations have remained popular, and they can be found on all the newest Children’s Art Project merchandise.
The Perspective of a Pediatric Oncology Nurse
Having the opportunity to work as a registered nurse at the same facility where she was cared for as a cancerous child is “a blessing,” says Mortus. In a solemn tone, she says, “I can relate because I’ve been there myself. I’ve experienced both happy and sad days, so I know what they should look like.”
As a patient, Mortus developed close relationships with several of her caregivers. Some people who helped her several years ago are still in touch with her. Mortus surprised her favorite nurse from back when she was a patient by visiting her after she got the job.
Every day in her role at the time as a nurse, she had the chance to develop heartfelt connections with the people she cared for.
She thinks the personal connections that the nurses at MD Anderson build with their patients are a big part of what makes the hospital so unique. My favorite part of coming to work is being able to serve kids and young adults and give them hope.
Reporter Clarence Walker can be reached at [email protected]