Bringing on the smiles

BY DORA GROTE | JANUARY 30, 2015 5:00 AM

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University of Iowa House Staff Fellow Beeling Armijo spends her days and nights thinking about the children she cares for in the UI Hospitals and Clinics. But when the days get long, the hours get tough, and her life gets stressed, she only needs one thing to make it “all OK.”

A hug.

That warm embrace from a child battling cancer is the moment that reinforces her passion and decision to be a caretaker, said the Dance Marathon pediatric oncology fellow.

“You can always page me out of whatever I’m doing if you want to give me a hug,” Armijo told a family whose little girl “just wanted a hug” after spending all weekend in the hospital.

Each year, Dance Marathon funds 50 percent of a pediatric oncology fellow during her or his second year of a three-year rotation, and starting next year, Dance Marathon has agreed to fund a second fellow.

“Many of the research projects that we fund come from past Dance Marathon fellows, so providing for this position allows the Children’s Hospital to gain valuable research and physicians who benefit the children and families that Dance Marathon supports,” said Drake Wilbur, Dance Marathon’s public relations and marketing director.

The fellows are physicians who have trained as pediatricians but have decided they want to specialize in pediatric oncology. They team with a supervising physician and become responsible for the management and care of their primary patients. The fellows develop relationships with the families and become very important to them, said Mary Schlapkohl, a UIHC 53-year-old advanced registered nurse practitioner who provides guidance and assistance to the fellows.

Over the years, the program has expanded into a structured and comprehensive fellowship to keep up to date with the current research and care of children with cancer.

“These fellows are the future clinicians and researchers who will continue to care for children with cancer,” Schlapkohl said. “Bee goes above and beyond in caring for her patients and is extremely thorough in making sure her patients receive the best care possible.”

Armijo spends her days meeting with anywhere from nine to 20 families, and those interactions are one focus of her research.

A large part of her research focuses on medical education — learning how to improve the patient and family experience when they are diagnosed with cancer. She wants to find better methods of teaching families and patients about their disease and ensuring they feel empowered, well-informed, and comfortable with their decisions during their journey.

“It’s very important to me to be able to provide information to families and have them be able to understand it,” Armijo said. “You still have to discuss treatment plans, and it can’t just be understandable among physicians, it has to be able to be understandable to the families.”

The 33-year-old said that in the initial visit, she bonds and develops trust with the families, so she wants to find ways to make the first meeting better. 

Armijo loves seeing the children in the hospital light up when Dance Marathon brings them fun things to play with, such as dress-up hats, or sometimes just hanging out. She spoke at the Dance Marathon Cancer Forum in December, in which which she told Dance Marathon participants that their efforts also affect the doctors as well as patients.

“Dance Marathon takes you in, not just the families but the physicians, too, whether you realize it or not,” Armijo said, fighting back tears. “I want to say thank you to Dance Marathon. I feel bad that they don’t get to see some of the smiles they cause.”

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