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At the age of 10, Hannah McCullough, BSN, got a glimpse of her dream job as a pediatric oncology nurse.
As a child, she spent hours caring for her brother at his bedside at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital following a brain cancer diagnosis and being amazed by how the nurses took time out of their day to spend time with him. McCullough recalls how they focused on him as a whole person, which she found special.
When Matthew passed away, McCullough became even more committed to becoming a nurse.
She was a nursing assistant at Stanford Health Care for adults with cancer. Then, she transferred to Packard Children’s and worked as a nursing assistant in the Pediatric Transplant Center.
Hannah is now 25 and in her dream job as a pediatric hematology-oncology and stem cell transplant nurse at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, and a nurse on the same unit that cared for her brother years ago.
Daily Nurse honors Hannah McCullough as the Nurse of the Week for turning a tragic moment into something positive and making her journey into nursing in honor of her brother. McCullough is a dedicated and compassionate nurse who ensures that patients and families are heard, feel loved and welcomed, and focuses on holistic care – which is what she admired so much as a child.
What follows is our interview with McCullough, edited for length and clarity.
Talk about your brother’s brain cancer diagnosis and how the care he received from nurses at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford impacted you as a child.
I often accompanied my parents to see my big brother, Matthew, at the hospital. While there, I was always amazed at how personally engaged the nurses were with him. Knowing Matthew loved card games, they always found time to play a hand with him or watch him perform his favorite magic tricks. As I looked on from the side, I remember watching their faces – the nurses genuinely enjoyed spending time with Matthew.
As siblings, it was a really difficult time for us. I always appreciated how the staff took time out of their busy schedules to get to know my other brother and me. The Packard Children’s team cared for us as a family, and the gratitude I felt – even at such a young age – is something that remains with me.
Did this inspire you to become a nurse? Why did you decide to become a pediatric oncology nurse?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a nurse. And when Matthew was diagnosed, I enjoyed taking care of him. Once he passed, I knew I wanted to give back to the community that cared so much for Matthew and my family. Through my grief, I found my calling— to help others navigate the same path. I hold a special place in my heart for these patients and their families.
It’s been a long journey, which started at ten years old. School never came easy for me, but I knew the goal I wanted to achieve. I attended nursing school while simultaneously working as a nursing assistant at Stanford Health Care for adults with cancer. After some time, I transferred to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and worked as a nursing assistant in the Pediatric Transplant Center. Once I graduated, I was accepted into the new grad program within the hematology/oncology unit.
You were working as a nursing assistant at Stanford Health Care for adults with cancer and then transferred to Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital and worked as a nursing assistant in the Pediatric Transplant Center. How does it feel to work in the same unit that cared for your brother years ago?
I feel like I’ve come full circle. And it’s wonderful to work alongside some providers who cared for Matthew all those years ago. To hear them recall stories of my brother, it feels so good knowing his legacy lives on here. And it warms my heart knowing that I am working on the same floor, caring for the same patients that he once was.
When your brother was in the hospital, the nurses at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford took time out of their day to spend time with him and focus on him as a whole person. How do you ensure that patients and families are heard in your role and feel loved and welcomed?
I strive to get to know my patients and families, but I gravitate towards the siblings because, often, they tend to go unnoticed. Many may be anxious or bored, not knowing what to do. From the perspective of a sibling – where I once was – I always appreciated when the nurses would ask how my day was or what I liked to do. So, I try to communicate with them – get down to their level and talk and engage with them.
Do you consider your role as a pediatric oncology nurse your dream job?
It is 100 percent my dream job. At 25 years old, it’s so surreal to be in my dream job. I don’t see myself doing anything else.
Talk about your focus on holistic patient care and why you admired this type of care so much as a child.
For the most part, the patients’ days are regimented. So, allowing a space for them to do things that they enjoy, like playing cards, coloring, or even taking a walk outside, can have a profound impact on their emotional well-being. We try to ensure that our patients enjoy as much time as they can while they are in the hospital.
What is the best thing about being a pediatric oncology nurse at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford?
This is exactly where my brother was treated, and it feels good to be back in the same space and energy of his spirit. I also enjoy working with an amazingly supportive team. The energy is excellent, and the team has a lot of resilience. We are our patients’ advocates, and the mutual respect and support shared across the team is inspiring.
What advice can you give to other nurses considering this role?
Nursing is a challenging job, particularly in pediatric oncology. It can be gratifying, especially when a patient goes into remission or completes treatment. But it can also be challenging, as one can imagine. I advise new nurses to find comfort in establishing work-life boundaries and reinforcing positive fulfillment outside of work.
Do you have anything else to add?
At such a young age, watching my brother Matthew made me mature much faster than those around me. He woke up each day smiling, ready to fight. And this memory is what pushes me to fight for my patients. He remains such an inspiration to me and gives me the strength to wake up each day with a smile and do what I love.
Nominate a Nurse of the Week! Every Wednesday, DailyNurse.com features a nurse making a difference in the lives of their patients, students, and colleagues. We encourage you to nominate a nurse who has impacted your life as the next Nurse of the Week, and we’ll feature them online and in our weekly newsletter.
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