When 15-year-old Maddie Schiller was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, she felt overwhelmed. The diagnosis and subsequent chemotherapy sessions at MassGeneral Hospital for Children (MGHfC) disrupted her sophomore year (2019–2020) at Norwell High School, causing her to miss classes and time with friends.
Early in her treatment, Maddie remembers being in a room full of medical professionals and feeling inundated with information and emotions. Then a nurse locked eyes with her. The “knowing look,” as Maddie describes it, let her know she wasn’t alone in her fight.
Soon, Maddie learned that everyone at MGHfC was there to help her.
Focusing on the Patient
Through her treatments, Maddie came to know her nurses well. She would ask them how IVs are inserted and what nursing school was like. Maddie says her outpatient nurse practitioner, Samantha Vincent, CPNP, her clinic nurse Rhonda McIntyre, RN, her pediatric oncologist, Lauren Boal, MD, and many nurses “are like family to me now.”
“When I look back, I remember how awesome my nurses were…I really bonded with my nursing team.”
“Our patients get to know us as real people and we get to know them — not just as patients — but as real people,” Ms. Vincent says. “It helps to normalize being in the hospital. It’s nice to look at pictures and joke with each other, laugh and share memories.”
At Christmas, instead of celebrating at home with her family in Norwell, Massachusetts, Maddie spent the week at MGHfC. But thanks to her family and the nurses, the holiday was still joyful.
On Christmas Eve, her older brother, Cole Schiller, stayed in the hospital with her. The siblings slept in late on Christmas morning. When Maddie looked out her hospital window, she was comforted to see her dog, Slater, racing around a baseball field with her parents, Sally and Kevin Schiller, nearby.
Throughout the day, family, friends and nurses stopped by or called. Maddie even got to wrap her arms around her beloved black Lab outside in the hospital courtyard.
Many of the negative feelings, like how sick she was that Christmas, are blurred out, Maddie says. “When I look back, I remember how awesome my nurses were. Being in the hospital over Christmas and my birthday in January, I really bonded with my nursing team.”
Inspired by Her Nurses
Maddie’s mom, Sally, says that one hospital experience, in particular, shows the excellent level of care at MGHfC.
In May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Maddie was hospitalized for an infection and a side effect to chemotherapy that made her unable to move one side of her body. To protect her, Maddie was placed in a special room and her care team wore personal protective clothing that Sally, says looked like hazmat suits.
Maddie’s cancer nurses could not visit, but they chatted with Maddie through online video calls and came to her window to wave. The gestures meant a lot to Maddie and Sally. When Maddie recovered and the family left the hospital, Sally remembers thinking what a horrific week it had been. At that moment, Maddie exclaimed: “I can’t wait to be a nurse!”
Fundraising for Families
During the pandemic, Maddie realized how much harder it was for kids with cancer if their families had financial difficulties. So, she created a Mass General BeCause fundraising page to help support a pediatric hematology-oncology philanthropy effort, the Fund for Families, which provides families of young cancer patients with money to pay for groceries, gas, clothing and household bills.
“I know from personal experience how big of a worry it is on parents to have a sick child. I wanted families to be able to focus more on their child’s well-being, instead of worrying about so many things at once,” Maddie explains.
Maddie asked students for donations during her school’s morning announcements. Her father shared her webpage with coworkers. And her family reached out to family and friends. So far, they have raised more than $16,000.
“I want to become a nurse so I can help people in the way that my nurses helped me.”
Elyse Levin-Russman, LICSW, OSW-C, a clinical social worker in pediatric hematology-oncology, says the money Maddie has raised is critical because the need for support has dramatically increased in the wake of the pandemic. “I am awed and impressed that she had the maturity at 17 to say, ‘This must be worse for other people,’” Ms. Levin-Russman says.
In the spring of 2021, Maddie was back at school, running distance events for the track team.
Today, Maddie still has chemo treatments once every three months, but her eyes are on the future.
“Cancer has taught me to live every moment to its fullest,” Maddie says. “And it’s taught me that there are so many amazing people out there who have changed my life and others’ lives. I want to become a nurse so I can help people in the way that my nurses helped me.”
To help Maddie raise money for families with kids with cancer, please visit her fundraising page.