Dance Marathon: Nurse uses laughter to care for kids


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Every summer, Carolyn Bygness gets two weeks of vacation time. And for the last 25 years, she’s given up half of that to be a counselor at a summer camp for kids with cancer.

For that one week, Bygness, a nurse in the UI Hospital and Clinics’ Pediatric Specialty Clinic, doesn’t have to give these kids spinal taps or chemo injections. Instead, she helps with arts and crafts and swimming.

The little boy with an amputated leg doesn’t have to wear the artificial limb that just slows him down. The teenage girls can forget their wigs and instead worry about getting a date for the camp dance.

“They’re not ‘odd.’ People don’t stare at them,” Bygness said. “They’re just friends.”

A self-proclaimed “kid at heart,” Bygness, 52, has always enjoyed working with kids. And by caring for about 25 pediatric patients a day, the blue-eyed nurse with a friendly, spontaneous laugh, has done what she loves for the past 28 years.

Bygness came to the UI in 1981, and although she was told most nurses leave after two years, she said, “my two years came, and I’m still here.”

While she has worked in the pediatric clinic for nine years, she didn’t originally plan on working specifically with cancer patients, but the relationships formed with long-term patients drew her to it.

“It isn’t just the patients you get to know,” she said. “It’s the family dynamics, and you share the love.”

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Bygness was with Selena Levetzow two years ago when Levetzow’s baby girl, Eden, was diagnosed with leukemia. And, with weekly visits to the clinic, she soon became a positive presence for their family.

“For someone to not be a mother and to understand kids as well as Carolyn does is an amazing gift,” Levetzow said. “It’s not something you can learn. She claims all the kids there as her own.” Bygness has a “smile that never falters,” Levetzow said.

On a daily basis, Bygness checks in kids, administers chemo either through a quick injection or through a pump, draws blood, and performs transfusions, among other procedures.

But it’s laughing and playing with patients she loves the most, she said. Although she loves spending time with them, success is sending kids home.

Mary Lou Linder, a nurse for 32 years who has worked with Bygness for nine years, said laughter and forming bonds with patients is part of the process of getting kids better.

But other than sending them home healthy, there’s another, less-happy reason Bygness doesn’t get to see certain patients anymore.

“Kids die, people die, and that part is hard,” she said. “You say, ‘Oh I’m not going to get that close to anybody again.’ But you do. That’s the nature of life: You get close to people.”

She said she loves the “Big Event” and usually performs a lip-sync routine with other nurses and doctors. But this year, she will be on a cruise ship, celebrating the end of a friend’s cancer treatment.

Though she had wanted kids of her own in the past, which she said is “out of the cards” now, her job of nearly three decades has fulfilled that desire.

“I love talking to kids. It gets my kid fix for the day, the week, and I don’t dwell on not having [children],” Bygness said. “I do everything to make their day and they make my day.”

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