Chances are, any child who has been through a cancer journey in the Wilmington area knows Lowell Higgins. He's the pediatric infusion program coordinator at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
"We see anywhere from 7 to 10 children a month with cancer,” Higgins says.
Children with cancer in this area have to travel to UNC Hospitals, Duke or children’s hospitals in Charlotte to see a physician. There are no pediatric oncologists in the Wilmington area.
While local children have traveled to be seen by a pediatric oncologist, they can get treatments, even chemotherapy in some cases, in Wilmington.
"We do a lot of lab draws because they have to have their labs drawn weekly prior to their chemotherapy so they may have come in here on a Wednesday to get their port accessed and labs drawn and then travel to Chapel Hill or Duke for their chemotherapies,” Higgins explained.
Higgins says leukemias are the most common cancers found in children here. About 30 percent of all cancers in children are some type of leukemia.
If found between two and eight years old, Higgins says most are treatable.
"Usually 90 percent curable so we see the best outcomes for that. It’'s a long treatment, three years, and not everyone is cured, but it’s probably the highest success rate of all the cancers we see for children here.”
There are tougher childhood cancers that include brain tumors, rhabdomyosarcomas, and Wilms tumors that start in the kidneys. Acute Myelogenous Leukemia or AML is also a difficult childhood cancer to treat.
"They just don't seem to be as treatable,” Higgins said. “We don't see a lot of those. They are kept up at Duke and Chapel Hill. A lot of those kids end up with bone marrow transplants so they’re having to deal with long term stays in the units there.”
According to the National Cancer Institute, an estimated 15,780 children under the age of 19 will be diagnosed with cancer. An estimated 1,960 will die of the disease in the United States.
Treating kids with cancer is hard, but Higgins and his group of nurses make it a lot easier for cancer’s youngest.
“Kids are resilient,” Higgns said. “They usually come in here happy, they’re playful. They’re not all in for the chemo, getting their labs done and being stuck but we can have a lot of fun so we try to make it as good a time as you for the couple hours they are here."
Higgins doesn’t sugarcoat it. Cancer in kids is hard and not all of them survive.
"Unfortunately that is one of the biggest downsides to this job,” he said with emotion. “Does it outweigh the joy? Absolutely not. Have I been to a lot of funerals? Yes.”
Still, he and the other nurses know the rewards--and even awards received after making a very sick child feel better if only for a little while.
Higgins says the best medicine is having fun.
"I'm as big a kid as anyone and anybody will tell you that. So I have as much fun with the squirting, saline syringes as they do. If they squirt me, game on, I’m in and we're going to play."
While he loves his job, he admits, he would love to have an excuse not to be needed. He’s counting on a cancer cure.
"This would be a great job to lose for sure. I'm about ready to do full-time fishing so when they find a cure for cancer, I'm done,” he said with a smile.
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