When Kim was seventeen, her life looked much like a typical teenager’s. She had a part-time job, enjoyed trips to the beach with friends, and was anxiously awaiting her senior year of high school.
But when she found herself short of breath more often than her friends were, her mom brought her to a local emergency room , just in case. She was ultimately diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
She would spend the next 26 months in and out of CHOC Children’s fighting cancer, but always with an end goal in mind: to return someday as a hematology/oncology nurse at the Hyundai Cancer Institute, which she did, ten years after her diagnosis.
“Even back then I thought that when I was better, I was going to be a nurse at CHOC,” she says. “I don’t think I chose my career; I think it chose me. Ever since I got sick, there was never an option to do anything else, anywhere else.”
Despite spending so much time in and out of the hospital while fighting cancer, Kim says she never felt like a patient, something she credits to her nurses.
“I was very involved in my care because I was fascinated by medicine,” she says. “They had protocols to follow and did everything they needed to, but I never felt like a patient. I was always Kimberly.”
Despite knowing the hospital setting from a patient’s perspective, there were a few surprises when she joined the care team.
“At the time, I didn’t realize all the behind-the-scenes work of being a nurse,” Kim says. “No matter what stressful situation had occurred to them earlier that day or just before they came into my room, it didn’t matter. As soon as they would walk into my room, it was all about me, and they were leaving their stress at the door.”
She now works alongside several physicians and nurses who cared for her when she was a patient.
“A lot of times when I see them, despite the hustle and bustle of working in a hospital, they’ll take a moment to come up to me and hug me extra tight,” Kim says.
One of her nurses, Dana Moran, lights up every time she sees Kim. The two bonded over TV shows, movies and anything else Kim had wanted to talk about when she was a patient.
“At that age, it’s easy to become discouraged and shut down emotionally, but not Kim,” Dana says. “She was scared and she was sick, but she never lost her sense of humor. She remained strong and positive for the people around her who were worried about her.”
Small acts of kindness from nurses like Dana have stuck with Kim for more than a decade.
“My mom would tell me how the nurses brought her hot coffee every morning, and how much a small gesture like that meant so much to her. So, I try to tap into the little things like that, since I know they make such a big difference to patients and families,” she said.
Kim’s pediatric oncologist, Dr. Lilibeth Torno, met Kim’s ambulance upon her initial transfer to CHOC, and they now work side by side.
“I admitted Kim when she was first diagnosed. Her mom had a bouquet of flowers which she handed over to me,” Dr. Torno recalls. “As a former patient, she truly understands, more than anyone else, what it is like to have a life-threatening diagnosis. She experienced firsthand the difficult procedures and treatment her diagnosis entailed, and it has made her an effective advocate for her patients. It is a joy and privilege to walk this difficult journey with our patients. It truly makes my work meaningful to see them move on in life.”
Kim’s time as a patient also affected her career on a very detailed level.
“Whenever I do a task, no matter how small, I can remember when that was done to me, and I think it brings a softer touch to what I do,” she says. “My whole heart is in what I do. I treat my patients’ families like they were my own.”
Celebrating important milestones for patients is an especially heartfelt part of her role as a nurse.
“As much as we love seeing our patients here, there is nothing better than being able to send patients home,” Kim says. “I remember how happy I was to be sent home at the end of a hospital stay, and I love being able to help them celebrate by singing, “Happy Last Chemo to You.”
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2020-21 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the cancer specialty.