Back where she fought cancer as a child, nurse offers hope to kids

Her own experience helps her understand their journey, build connections
Amelia Ballard, a registered nurse at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and a cancer survivor, always knew she wanted to work in pediatric oncology. Here she is with Dani Cuevas, who is 15. (Courtesy of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta)

Credit: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Credit: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Amelia Ballard, a registered nurse at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and a cancer survivor, always knew she wanted to work in pediatric oncology. Here she is with Dani Cuevas, who is 15. (Courtesy of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta)

Amelia Ballard was working at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as a nurse in the emergency room department when an opportunity opened up at the hospital’s Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. She knew that’s where she belonged. She’s known that since she was a little girl.

“It’s been my dream my entire life,” said Ballard, who works at Children’s Egleston campus and is now 27. “Since I was probably 3 years old when I was surrounded by a wonderful medical team, I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”

As a young child, Ballard was hospitalized most of the time over a two-year-long period at Children’s. By the time she was 5 years old, the girl from Macon had beat leukemia twice. Little Amelia underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and then received a bone marrow transplant.

It was a grueling recovery journey. But it wasn’t all bad. The petite woman with hazel eyes remembers good days and being surrounded by lots of love while being a young cancer patient undergoing care at the Egleston and Scottish Rite locations.

The Atlanta Journal-Constituted featured Ballard’s return to Children’s not as a patient, but as a nurse in the emergency room department, more than four years ago. The AJC recently reconnected with Ballard, who now works in the pediatric cancer unit. She’s now been there since the fall of 2018.

Previous experience in the emergency department prepared her for many aspects of her new role. But she was struck by a rush of emotions that took her by surprise. The familiar colors and scent of chemotherapies, topical antiseptics, hospital soap.

“At first, it was surreal and mind-blowing,” she said. “But I am getting used to it ... I didn’t realize how many memories I had suppressed.”

She also couldn’t help but think about her own experience, her port, a device used to draw blood and give treatments, including chemotherapy. The port is placed under the skin, usually in the right side of the chest.

“Now when I am accessing a port, I remember how sensitive the skin is, how much it can hurt to touch that part of the chest,” she said.

It’s one of the many ways her experience as a child helps her connect with her pediatric patients. She shares personal stories with some patient families, when, she said, the timing is right and it can be helpful.

“It depends on the situation,” she said. “Especially when they are going through a traumatic situation, and I ask myself if I should share my story right now or do they need to just feel their grief and process where they are.”

Yolanda Gamel of Sharpsburg and her daughter, Dani Cuevas, learned Ballard was a leukemia survivor about a month after Dani started getting treatment for leukemia. Another nurse had mentioned it.

“When we saw Amelia again, she told us her story and it was an instant connection,” said Gamel. “It was an instant bond, and for me, gives us hope that Dani can overcome this.”

During her own battle, Ballard credits her parents and the hospital staff with providing her with as much normalcy and optimism as possible. Her mom, she said, only took photos of her smiling and days when she was feeling OK, and her mom would show her those photos on days she was not feeling well.

Ballard also remembers doctors and nurses doing their best to bring warmth and cheerfulness to the sterile, sometimes scary hospital setting. Some of those same doctors and nurses are still at Children’s.

Once, her family and hospital staff joined forces to throw Ballard a “Lion King”-themed birthday party for her fourth birthday. The party was held in a special family room, which was fully decorated with yellow balloons and party hats.

“My mom always said I was born with a joyful spirit. ... She discussed the future a lot,” Ballard said about being in the hospital. “Whether it was five minutes or five years, I had so much to look forward to once this was over.”

Amelia Ballard spent years of her childhood at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta undergoing treatment for leukemia. She is 4 years old in this photo. (Family photo)

Credit: Family photo

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Credit: Family photo

At 17 months old, Ballard arrived at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with a 106-degree fever. She was quickly diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. Shortly after a 27-month-long treatment, she relapsed. At 4, she received a bone marrow transplant from her older brother Robbie. Luckily, he was a perfect match.

After being in remission for five years, Ballard entered the Survivorship Program at Children’s. Over the next several years, Ballard had regular checkups at Children’s. She attended Camp Sunshine, a special camp for children with cancer. She made good friends, grew close to counselors and nurses at the camp, and became a camp counselor at Camp Sunshine.

Her experiences cemented her desire to work with children and be a nurse.

Amelia Ballard with Dani Cuevas, who is 15. Dani said Ballard has been an enormous source of support. (Courtesy of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta)

Credit: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

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Credit: Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

Dani, who is now 15, said Ballard has been an enormous source of support and inspiration.

“She is really nice and it helps she’s been through it and I can ask her a lot of questions and it’s comforting.”

One thing Dani asked about is what is known as “chemo brain,” trouble concentrating and forgetfulness that can sometimes happen after chemotherapy. For most people, these mental changes last only a short time. Ballard shared with Dani that yes, she experienced chemo brain, and adjusted by writing good notes and setting alerts and reminders on her cellphone.

“She explained that in school, she had to work extra hard to get through it, but she did it,” said Dani.

Dani said Ballard also encouraged her to go to Camp Sunshine, something Dani hopes to do after the pandemic, when camps start back up again.

Jessica Westbrooks, a child life specialist at Children’s, said Ballard strikes a perfect balance of connecting with parents, and sharing her story, but not overdoing it.

“Her journey helps her connect with families whether it’s spoken or unspoken,” she said. “I think that is the power of it. I think Amelia does a very good job of having appropriate boundaries and when she meets a family, she shares in a way that is helpful but not making it about herself or not oversharing.”

Westbrooks said Ballard is an excellent listener and advocates for patients and their families. She also does a good job of explaining what to expect during treatment, and she doesn’t hesitate in reaching out to Westbrooks to brainstorm ways to assist patients and their families — whether it’s surprising a young child who loves Hot Wheels cars with a couple of toy cars after undergoing treatment or providing additional support for families struggling to cope.

In this 2016 file photo, Amelia Ballard, a pediatric nurse at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston location, treats her patient, Olen, who is 8 months old, in the emergency room. Ballard worked in the emergency department at Children's before working at the Children's Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center (Emily Jenkins / AJC file photo)

Credit: Emily Jenkins

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Credit: Emily Jenkins

Ballard, engaged and getting married later this year, also started a cookie business — “Sweet Amelia’s Cookies” decorated sugar cookies. And she is exactly where she wants to be.

“I am motivated by them as much as they are by me,” said Ballard. “Our patients are so resilient and strong, and I think a lot of times you hear about kids with cancer and you think that is so sad. But these are some of the strongest and happiest kids you will see, and these kids have gone through so much and they are so strong and super resilient, and I hope I can shed a ray of hope and perspective with treatment and after treatment, don’t let it hold you back.”