A New Passion

After Helping Son Get Through Chemotherapy, Mom Becomes a Nurse at Children’s

With a deep fear of procedures and needles, Julie Metz hardly seemed like the type to go into the nursing field. But after receiving heartbreaking news about her son, Julie jumped into action—and discovered inspiration all around her.

“It was a lightbulb moment,” she said.

In August 2003, her son Joshua was diagnosed with cancer—a tumor in the thalamus, a central section deep inside the brain responsible for processing messages from the body and stimulating a reaction.

He had just turned 3.

The Waiting Game

The diagnosis wasn’t easy on the family, but the news about what to do next was even harder. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan showed the tumor was inoperable; doctors told the Metz family they wanted to wait and see whether the tumor grew before they risked performing a biopsy.

In April 2004, after several more MRIs, doctors performed a stereotactic biopsy, a minimally invasive procedure that takes samples of tissue after mapping the brain. The findings were mixed; again, the family waited.

The tumor had caused severe vision problems, from differently sized pupils to a wandering eye, and while eye surgery would not correct the tumor, it could counteract some of the effects.

For two weeks after the October surgery, Joshua’s vision markedly improved. That soon reversed, however. After another MRI, his neuro-oncologist informed Julie the tumor had significantly progressed.

In December 2004, Joshua’s chemotherapy port was inserted. He began the first round of two protocols of treatment at the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

A Change of Heart

Julie and Joshua MetzA full-time mom to four kids, Julie soon found herself spending hours at Scottish Rite hospital, whether at the Aflac Cancer Center or the Emergency Department. Her aversion to needles fell away as she watched Joshua’s healthcare team—particularly his nurses—care for him. She wanted to do anything she could to keep her sick child comfortable.

“As a parent, I just dealt with it,” Julie said. “Medically, I was exposed to more, and pretty soon, I was asking what I could do to help them.”

Julie’s grandmother and aunt had served as nurses for their entire careers, and most of her college roommates had become nurses, but she never thought the field was for her.

The support she and Joshua received from the Aflac Cancer Center nurses changed her perspective—and inspired her to choose a new path.

“Nurses have the ability to make an unbearable day tolerable,” Julie said. “Being there for families in that moment has a tremendous, lasting impact. It will always have an impact on me.”

In January 2009, about a year and a half after Joshua completed his second chemotherapy protocol, Julie started taking prerequisite classes for nursing school. She began working on the neurosurgery unit at Scottish Rite in 2011 and fell in love with the job—and the children she encountered every day.

“This is just what I was meant to do,” Julie said. “I believe Joshua’s diagnosis and treatment have a greater purpose, whether it means I can help even one family or many.”

Getting on with Life

Julie and Joshua MetzHis chemotherapy regimens complete, Joshua was monitored closely by his team at Children’s, getting an MRI every three months. Three months became four, then six, and now, at 13, Joshua gets an MRI once a year. While the tumor is still there, the chemotherapy has caused it to stop growing.

“He’s doing great,” Julie said. “He’s a teenager. We’re going on with life.”

With a talent for Spanish, Joshua wants to strengthen his language skills and travel to other countries as a missionary when he gets older.

In the meantime, Julie is focused on providing the same level of care and compassion that Joshua’s nurses showed her entire family.

“I wouldn’t have chosen this path if it weren’t for the nurses we encountered,” she said. “From the schedulers to the office staff to the nurses, so much of my inspiration comes from the people we met during treatment.”


A Life Forever Changed

Drew Verdecchia often Found Himself Sleeping in a Crib to Comfort his Son

While watching his son, Cruise, celebrate the end of his preschool year last month, one thought dominated Drew Verdecchia’s mind: My God, how lucky are we to have him here?

Just over two years earlier Cruise was diagnosed with a malignant rhabdoid tumor in his right eye orbit. At just 17 months old, Cruise was given an 11 percent chance of survival.

“I don’t take it for granted as much as I did, but I always hope I remember that feeling of knowing how special it is that each of my boys are alive,” said the father of three boys—Blaze, 6; Cruise, 3; and Harper, 1.

Just before Christmas 2010, as the Verdecchias were flying to Colorado, Drew and his wife, Jen, noticed Cruise’s right eye was not tracking. Concerned, the parents took their son to get an MRI, which showed—to the surprise of doctors—no tumor. However, the situation did not improve over the next few months, and Cruise had another MRI the following March. This time, the scan revealed what doctors originally feared.

“When we had the first MRI and doctors came back and said there was no tumor, that was—by far—the best feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Drew said. “When we got the call that they found the tumor after the second MRI, in contrast, that was absolutely the worst moment of my life. It felt like a ton of bricks on my chest.”

The tumor, which was inoperable, was treated with 10 months of intravenous chemotherapy at the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as well as 2 1/2 months of a very precise radiation treatment, called proton therapy, at The University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute.

Cruise was in the hospital for more than half of the total days he underwent chemo. Though Drew would spend his days at work, while Jen was at the hospital, he was with Cruise every night. After work, the Verdecchias would get together for a family meal before Jen and Blaze headed home for the night.

“I remember days waking up in Cruise’s crib, because in the middle of the night he was shaking and feeling miserable,” Drew said. “The nurse would come in and I would literally be in the crib with him, just holding him so he could sleep.”

Spending his nights at the hospital with Cruise—sometimes for more than a week at a time—took Drew away from his wife and Blaze. But Drew always made sure that his oldest son wasn’t neglected.

“Because I would work during the day and was at the hospital all night long, I’d only get to see Blaze for an hour a day,” Drew said. “There were a few times going in to work, I’d say ‘forget about it,’ and I’d drive by his school and ask the teacher if I could spend a little time with Blaze.”

“Before we had kids, Drew’s goal was to have kids that were happy, healthy and kind, and he really manifests that,” Jen said. “Drew is definitely a kid at heart, but he takes his role of being a dad very seriously.”

Despite only being able to see in his left eye, Cruise’s health has improved greatly since beginning treatment.

“He is doing fantastic,” Drew said. “His success is due to Children’s, Dr. Katzenstein and the amazing nurses of the Aflac Cancer Center.”

Cruise still requires a daily low dose of chemo that he takes orally, but the Verdecchias anticipate the treatment will end in January.

“I look at each of my children and my wife, and I know my life is forever changed,” Drew said. “I appreciate all of my boys even more than I ever did.”


Treasuring Each Day

Jamie Chumley No Longer Takes Life for Granted

After his son, Nathan, was diagnosed with cancer, Jamie Chumley would think back to all the everyday moments he used to take for granted, such as throwing a ball or going to the park with his 5-year-old. There were times when Jamie wasn’t sure he would ever get those moments back.

"Every day it constantly stayed in the back of my mind," Jamie said. "When you hear cancer, you always think of the worst, and that's how I thought. It was more evident in the beginning because you didn't know how he was going to react to the chemotherapy."

Jamie, his wife Dawn and their two children—Nathan and Luke, 8—were on vacation when their youngest boy started running a fever. After three trips to their pediatrician without an improvement in Nathan’s condition, the family was referred to the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Tests ultimately determined he had a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

"There's not a word to describe how you feel when you hear your child has cancer," Jamie said. "He was healthy before this. It was mind-blowing to us."

Some of Jamie’s fears were put to rest shortly after Nathan began chemo. Within a week, two lesions, on his spleen and liver, were gone. The biggest mass, which was on his left kidney, required a much more aggressive therapy, but he was up to the challenge.

"His roadmap was for four months, but he did very well with his treatments," Jamie said. "He finished two months ahead of schedule. We could tell the chemo was working because it brought his spirit and energy back up.

"That meant the world to us. You never want to see your child in the hospital, but seeing him acting silly and running around flirting with a nurse—even though he was only 5 years old—was really good to see."

While Nathan is still recovering from a bone marrow transplant in January, Jamie says he is getting better every day. And with Father's Day approaching, he knows this year the day will mean even more to him. The family is also very involved with CURE Childhood Cancer, a nonprofit dedicated to conquering childhood cancer through funding targeted research and through the support of patients and their families. CURE is also one of the Aflac Cancer Center’s largest donors.

"Nathan's getting better and Luke is growing up," Jamie said. "It just means more knowing that it could have been a worse scenario. I just cherish the small things more."


Cherishing Every Moment

Lauren Howell is Thankful for Each Day with Her Son

Lauren Howell wasn’t sure what to expect when her first child was born in August 2007, but she knew it would be a difficult journey from day one. Though no ultrasounds gave any indication of a problem, one final scan just before she gave birth showed a large tumor on the back of her son, Liam.

“I got to hold Liam for 10 minutes before he was whisked away, and the next time I saw him, he was a day and a half old,” Lauren said.

Her son was immediately brought to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta for surgery and within 48 hours of being born, the tumor was removed. Doctors quickly learned the visible portion of the tumor was only the beginning. The cancer had started in the abdominal wall, grew through the gaps in his rib cage into his lung cavity and wrapped around his shoulder blade.

At just 2 weeks old Liam began chemotherapy to treat infantile fibrosarcoma—a type of cancer that affects soft tissues such as fat, muscle and tendons. The treatment lasted a long nine months followed by scans every three months to verify the cancer was gone.

“That was the hardest part for me—just waiting,” Lauren said. “I lived my life in three-month increments. I had a lot of anxiety issues then. At least with chemo we were actively doing something. It was so frustrating to just wait and see if the cancer came back.”

During this time Lauren was forced to leave her job as a teacher at Flowery Branch High School to take care of Liam. Although not working that school year left the family with only one income, it’s a decision that Lauren will never regret.

“Being a mom is the greatest role I have played in my life—far above my career,” she said.

May 12, 2013 will mark Lauren’s sixth Mother’s Day, and she plans to celebrate by doing something that wasn’t always promised—spending the day with her 2-year-old daughter, Abbi, and Liam, who officially became a cancer survivor in July 2012.

“I love my mom a lot,” Liam said, adding that his mother has been especially helpful during hospital visits. “She helps me to be brave and tells me not to be scared, but sometimes I’m still a little scared.”

After what her family has been through since 2007, Lauren says she has a greater appreciation of what it means to be a mother.

Realizing that his life could have been cut short, Lauren cherishes every moment with Liam. Two months ago she watched him cross the finish line of the Curing Cancer with Color 5K. In that moment Lauren couldn’t help but think about how much her 5-year-old son has already overcome and how proud she was to be able to call him her son.

“Liam handled chemo so well. I was just so amazed,” Lauren said.


Putting Her Life on Hold

Brandy Corbett Left a Successful Career to Help Care for Her Son

As a former two-sport collegiate athlete, Brandy Corbett knows the importance of putting a team before herself. So when her current team—her family of four—faced its toughest challenge yet in October 2011, she didn’t hesitate to step away from a successful career.

“I have always been a mom who tried to carefully balance taking care of my family while taking on the challenges of my career,” Brandy said. “There were many days that I would get up at 3 a.m. and go to work so that I could leave on time the next afternoon to be with Kale and Katy.

“I have always had the perspective that I would never sacrifice being the best mom I could be to my children for my career.”

Brandy was in her third year as the principal at Jefferson Middle School, where she had worked for 12 years, and was midway through a doctorate degree when she began noticing a change in her son, Kale. His energy level seemed to drop dramatically, never more evident than on the football field.

Though Kale’s initial blood work did not spark a great deal of concern from his pediatrician, Brandy was worried after Kale continued to struggle during football games. 

After a good friend, who was also a pediatrician, recommended more tests at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, it was revealed that the then-10-year-old had a rare form of leukemia.

“We were absolutely in shock,” Brandy said. “We had no family history of cancer. I just never would have thought he would have been diagnosed with something like this.”

Kale ultimately needed a bone marrow transplant, and when his sister, Katy, turned out not to be a match, the Corbetts turned the national donor registry. As it turned out, there was only one potentially perfect match—a female that the Corbetts had never met. After the transplant, Kale spent more than a month at Egleston hospital recovering and regaining his strength.

While Kale was in the hospital, Brandy did everything she could to help her son recover faster, including bringing out the family’s competitive nature. Brandy and her husband, Tim, set up a system for Kale to earn “points” by accomplishing daily tasks, such as walking laps around the nurses’ station. 

“This situation required her to continue not only what she was already doing as a mom, but also to take it to a different level,” Tim said. “She is the most selfless person that I’ve ever been around. God certainly knew what he was doing when he put Kale with Brandy.”

After taking a year off from Georgia Southern University, Brandy can again see the finish line for her doctorate and plans to return to education at some point in the future. For now she is content spending time with her own fifth-grader, who is not yet able to return to school.

“I feel confident that one day I will return to education; however, it just may not be at the same level,” she said. “And if I don’t ever return to that role again, I will always know that I made the right decision for my family. I only have one chance to be a good mother to my children, but my career will always be there.”


Looking to the Past for Strength

KK Cayce’s Two Children have both Faced Tough Battles

Although nothing can fully prepare a mother to hear that her child has cancer, when doctors discovered a tumor in the right leg of her son, Collier, KK Cayce was able to pull strength from having already watched one of her children fight for her life.

Eight years ago, KK gave birth to an extremely premature daughter, Kristen. After three months in a Virginia hospital with Kristen, who was born at 26 weeks, KK and her daughter finally returned to their home in Atlanta.

“The experience with our daughter was a very positive experience, and that helps because it makes it a little bit easier to know that Collier is going to pull through this,” KK Cayce said.

During the summer of 2012, KK and her husband, Charles, noticed a bump on Collier’s right leg after football practice. Believing it was a result of getting hit, the Cayces weren’t extremely concerned with the bump until the then-13-year-old came home from playing basketball in September with a swollen calf on the same leg.

After seeing their pediatrician, the family was immediately sent to the Emergency Department at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Following a series of tests that included an MRI and a biopsy, the Cayces received the news that turned their world upside down.

“The biopsy came back, and they told us that it was malignant,” KK Cayce said. “We were devastated.”

The next month, Collier began chemotherapy to treat Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. Now 14, he said he is grateful for his mother, who was so supportive and helped him get through the tough times.

“When I would go in for my five-day chemo, it made me feel so sick,” Collier said. “My mom always sat on the side of the bed and would pat my back. It just reminded me that she was there. It would definitely be a lot harder without my mom.”

While Collier isn’t completely out of the woods yet—he still has three more chemo treatments followed by two weeks of radiation on his lungs—his mother says his future is looking much better. The tumor in his leg is now about half the size it was when he was diagnosed.

With Mother’s Day approaching, KK is proud of her two children who have already had to fight to overcome so much adversity.

“Mother’s Day means everything to me,” KK Cayce said. “Every day is a blessing with the kids.”