‘It made us feel we had a life again’

Partnership brings clinic to northern Michigan—closer to home for children being treated for cancer and blood disorders.

Kaitlyn Posey arrived at the oncology clinic with smiles and hellos for familiar faces, and then headed straight to the art table to play.

For 7-year-old Kaitlyn, monthly visits for maintenance chemotherapy have become a routine part of life.

And that routine has become much easier―now that she can get her medical treatment close to her home in Traverse City.

Kaitlyn meets her doctors and nurses at a pediatric hematology-oncology clinic operated by Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in partnership with Munson Medical Center.

Twice a month, doctors and nurses from the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based children’s hospital see patients at Munson Medical Center’s Cowell Family Cancer Center in Traverse City. The visits include chemotherapy treatments, post-therapy checkups, patient evaluations and consultations.

This year, the clinic marks its 10th anniversary.

For northern Michigan parents, that adds up to many saved miles of travel. And for the children, it means much less time away from school or friends.

As she painted the blueberries she had molded from clay, Kaitlyn talked about the advantages of a clinic close to home.

“I don’t have to drive all the way down state,” she said. “And I don’t have to skip a day of learning.”

Kaitlyn’s maintenance chemotherapy appointment takes about two hours. She arrives in the morning, gets her medicine, and returns to school by lunchtime, said her mother, Sara Posey.

For the first year of Kaitlyn’s treatment, she went to Grand Rapids once a week for chemotherapy and scans. Each appointment meant a five-hour round-trip drive. On snowy days, the trip sometimes became an overnight visit.

When Kaitlyn reached the maintenance phase, she was able to begin seeing her doctors at the Traverse City clinic.

The switch “made us feel we had a life again,” Sara said. “It made us feel our world didn’t revolve around the cancer. We’re able to go to work and school and have a normal life.”

Kaitlyn completed first grade with few absences, staying “above average in all her academics,” her mom said.

“She’s great. She’s full of energy,” she said. “She played hockey. She learned to ski this winter.”

A partnership forms

Since the clinic opened in 2007, the medical team has overseen more than 2,000 patient visits, said Albert Cornelius, MD, a pediatric hematology-oncology specialist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and the clinic’s lead physician.

“That’s 2,000 trips―and 200-plus days off work that (parents) didn’t have to take,” he said.

Nurses at Munson Medical Center initiated the partnership, contacting staff at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to see if the team would provide care in Traverse City.

Dr. Cornelius and Michele Van Soelen, PNP-PC, a nurse practitioner and co-leader of the clinic, began seeing patients in Traverse City one day a month. In 2011, the clinic expanded to two days a month to meet growing patient need. Dr. Cornelius and other physicians take turns staffing the clinic.

“The biggest part for me is the collaboration,” Van Soelen said. “It’s been phenomenal to see the collaboration―that we work together to take care of these kids.”

“We’re not replacing the pediatric oncology care team at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital with the Munson Medical Center care team, we’re expanding the care team of each child to include the benefits of both Helen DeVos Children’s and Munson Medical Center,” Dr. Cornelius said.

Nurses from Munson Medical Center work together with the team from Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to integrate each patient’s care. When Kaitlyn arrived for her appointment, she greeted the nurses, Sandy Coil, RN, CPHON, and Anna White, RN, BSN, as good friends.

After meeting with Van Soelen for a medical exam, Kaitlyn sat in a chair for her chemo treatment. Coil used a syringe to administer the chemo drug into her port. She flushed the line with saline and heparin. The process took only a few minutes.

Kaitlyn moved back to the art table to collect her projects―a clay tulip and a bowl of fruit.

The art table is one of many kid-friendly elements in the clinic space, which radiates a playful, colorful spirit. A bubble wall adds color. A toy cart is filled with “poke prizes” for the patients.

The art table provides fun and therapy, said Tara Carroll, a counselor and art therapist. Creating art helps to relieve stress and anxiety.

“The art table creates a venue for parents, a place for the kids and the parents to discuss things they are going through,” she said. “It gives them empowerment, control and mastery over an environment they don’t have control over.”

From fear to treatment

Kaitlyn was 5 years old when her parents, Sara and Tony Posey, noticed the first signs of illness in 2015.

She started taking more naps during the day. Bruises appeared all over her legs. She had a broken blood vessel in her eye a couple of times.

Sara, an ophthalmology technician and former emergency medical technician, brought her daughter to the pediatrician’s office. She had a blood test, but Sara didn’t think it would turn up anything.

“I felt like a paranoid mom,” she said. “I thought I had made it a bigger deal than it was.”

She was working in Petoskey when she got the call: Kaitlyn’s blood test showed cells commonly found in children with leukemia.

“I cried my eyes out the entire way to Traverse City,” Sara said.

She picked up Kaitlyn and drove her to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. She didn’t realize until they were on the road that Kaitlyn was barefoot.

“We had to stop at Meijer to get a pair of shoes so she could walk into the hospital,” she said.

The Poseys learned Kaitlyn had B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

“They said (it’s) one of the most common and most easily treated,” Sara said.

Kaitlyn spent two weeks in the hospital. She had the port placed in her chest, received multiple chemo treatments, and had blood and platelet transfusions.

“She did amazing through all the treatments,” Sara said. “She never complained.”

Kaitlyn reached maintenance phase in May 2016 and began receiving her treatment at the clinic at Munson Medical Center.

The switch did not come easily at first. Kaitlyn and her parents had become attached to the staff in Grand Rapids.

“We were a little nervous, but we thought we’d give it a try,” Sara said.

They soon formed bonds with the staff at the Traverse City clinic as well.

Some northern Michigan families opt to stick with the clinic in Grand Rapids. But for those who like to stay closer to home, Dr. Cornelius is glad to be able to provide the clinic in Traverse City.

The medical team aims to minimize disruption to a child’s life, to allow as many routine activities as possible.

“Our goal isn’t just to cure cancer. It’s to restore wellness for these kids,” he said. “We want them to stay in school, to stay involved in sports and activities and to do all the normal things they can.”

Kaitlyn returns to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital every three months for a spinal tap or bone marrow biopsy.

She has a busy summer planned―camping with her grandparents and playing with her cousins.

And she looks forward to the fall. Her last scheduled chemo treatment is in September. She will celebrate her 8th birthday in October. And her parents plan to take her on a cruise―as a family end-of-treatment celebration.

Van Soelen, who has been involved in the clinic from the beginning, finds it rewarding to bring the pediatric oncology and hematology services to northern Michigan.

“I enjoy it,” she said. “I love caring for them. It is a delight and it’s an honor and a privilege to care for these kids.”

Learn more about medical care provided for children with cancer and blood disorders at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

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