Anna Smith finds joy in caring for children

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 19, 2006

Natchez native Anna Smith will speak with authority when she speaks to members of Congress on Tuesday.

A pediatric oncology nurse at M.D. Anderson&8217;s Children&8217;s Hospital, she will remind Congress of the importance of research in the her field of work.

Smith also will speak from the heart, as she is a survivor of childhood cancer. At 13, she was diagnosed with bone cancer in her leg.

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She beat the cancer and followed the call into nursing. A 2005 graduate of Alcorn State University School of Nursing, Smith took a job in Houston, Texas.

When she applied for the job in pediatric oncology, she thought, &8220;No way I&8217;ll get the job at M.D. Anderson, not this little girl from Natchez, Mississippi.&8221; But she did.

&8220;I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life,&8221; she said. &8220;I want to make a difference in the lives of these children.&8221;

She thought she was tougher than she is, Smith said. &8220;I thought, oh well, with kids, they don&8217;t really know they&8217;re dying. But I was so wrong. You would be amazed at how much they know, even at age 6.&8221;

Anna is the daughter of Danny and Mary Katherine Smith of Natchez. Her mother, also a registered nurse, knows about that first encounter with the question, &8220;Am I going to die?&8221; She remembers having to answer the question.

&8220;This is where my life began again,&8221; Mary Katherine said. &8220;This is the point I mark things by, everything in my life from 1994 through 1995, and this may be true for all cancer patients.&8221;

In 1994, Anna fell one day in gymnastics class. She thought she had pulled a muscle. A couple of weeks passed, however, and a mass formed below her knee.

&8220;We made an appointment with Dr. (Carl) Passman,&8221; Anna said. &8220;He took an X-ray and, after looking at the X-ray, he gave us the bad news. I can remember to this day the look he had on his face when he came back in the examination room.&8221;

Mary Katherine said Passman&8217;s advice to them &8212; and his decision not to take the case as his own &8212; probably saved her daughter&8217;s life, surely saved her leg. He suggested St. Jude Children&8217;s Resarch Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.

&8220;At St. Jude, where he told us we should go, they praised him, telling us we were so lucky that our doctor did not disturb the tumor,&8221; Mary Katherine said. &8220;I respect Dr. Passman so much for knowing that he should send us away.&8221;

When a mother hears that her child has cancer, the world stops, Mary Katherine said. &8220;But when we walked into the door at St. Jude, they just wrapped us in a blanket and carried us away. They did everything. They just took over.&8221;

The hospital was far from home. Anna and her mother for most of the time at St. Jude left Danny and the other two girls, Julia, then 15, and Dottie, then 11, behind. &8220;They totally understood, but it was very hard on the other girls,&8221; Mary Katherine said. &8220;I was not there for some significant times in their lives.&8221;

The crisis also was difficult for her husband. He had to stay home and run his business; other people depended on him, she said. &8220;He came to Memphis for the surgeries and brought the other girls when he could. But he really had a hard time.&8221;

The next two years would include chemotherapies and surgeries. Anna became thin, pale and bald. She often was nauseated and exhausted.

&8220;But she was a phenomenal patient,&8221; her mother said. &8220;She was so in tune with her body, totally absorbed in what was going on.&8221;

The major surgery to remove the cancer was successful. The doctors determined they could perform a limb-sparing surgery, remove the tumor and surrounding bone but save the leg.

The medical attention she received at St. Jude saved her life, Anna said. And the doctors and nurses gave direction to her life.

&8220;My nurses left a forever life-changing impression on me,&8221; she said. &8220;They took the time out of their day to comfort me and try to help me forget about what I was going through.&8221;

When she began working in pediatric oncology at M.D. Anderson, Anna at once saw that she could make a difference.

&8220;I remember the first time I told a patient I had cancer when I was her age. She was 14 years old and she had the same type of cancer I had,&8221; Anna said. When the patient learned she had to have chemotherapy and would lose her hair, she burst into tears.

Anna stepped up and told the patient she had gone through the same thing. &8220;She wanted to reach over and feel my hair to be sure it felt like real hair,&8221; Anna said.

Relating her experience gives the young patients hope. It helps the parents, also. Mary Katherine said she is not surprised by what Anna is doing and how active she wants to be for pediatric oncology research. &8220;This will not be the first time she has spoken to a group about her experiences,&8221; she said.

Anna is a determined person, her mother said. &8220;She aimed high and she achieved what she wanted.&8221;

Anna&8217;s nurse manager approached her a few weeks ago to ask whether she would be interested in making the trip to Washington, D.C., with an organization called Cure Search.

She could not say no to such an opportunity. It was a chance to tell about her experience and about all the other children whose lives may depend on further research.

&8220;I feel this is a calling,&8221; Anna said. &8220;To do this, you really have to want to do it. You have to feel it and have it in your heart.&8221;

She has patients who have good outcomes and give her joy. And, yes, there are the sad losses.

She tells how she was humbled by a recent experience with a young patient who did not make it.

The child&8217;s parents came to her after the child&8217;s death and said to her, &8220;We came here looking for a miracle, but we found an angel. You took care of our child.&8221;