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Childhood experience inspires teen cancer survivor’s career path to nursing

When Karla Barberena begins nursing school in the fall, she’ll already have an essential trait that can make her a great nurse: personal insight into what patients need most. Barberena, an 18-year-old living in Inglewood, Calif., beat the statistics by overcoming a rare malignant brain tumor nine years ago. She also found her calling to become an RN.

“I was just like any other 9-year-old,” Barberena said. “I would dream of being an archeologist, since that was what we were studying in school.”

Her normal childhood was interrupted when a horrible headache resulted in an ED visit, the first suggestion that something was gravely wrong.

Rare cancer diagnosis

The eventual diagnosis was medulloepithelioma, a pediatric brain tumor so rare that only 20 cases have been described in medical journals, according to Moise Danielpour, MD, director of the pediatric program in the Department of Neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Danielpour performed Karla’s surgery. Barberena is the third child known to have survived beyond five years after diagnosis.

The surgery was followed by a monthlong recovery, Barberena said, then six weeks of radiation treatments and six months of chemotherapy.

“The radiation really ruined me. It was horrible,” Barberena recalled. “My hair started falling out, and I was very weak. I always felt sick to my stomach.” From her diagnosis until she finally completed treatment, Barberena found the nurses who worked with her to be very caring.

“The nurses helped me so much during the battle with the cancer. They helped me when I was too weak to feed myself, and tried to cheer me up. Nurses would accompany me to my therapy sessions, and when I was having radiation, I got close to the nurses who worked with me. That’s when the idea of going into nursing started.”

The care Barberena received was even more special because her surgeon, Danielpour, donated his services. Cedars-Sinai established a fund for Barberena, and parents and faculty members from her elementary school helped collect more than $43,000 for her care.

Alexandra Eskin, RN, right, says Karla Barberena’s enthusiasm for patient care is evident in her dependability and timliness.

While recovering from surgery and the subsequent treatments, Barberena was homeschooled. She returned to her classroom in sixth grade, but had to repeat that year. She said the aftereffects of the tumor and her treatment have lingered.

“The brain tumor has meant that everything has slowed down for me,” Barberena said. “I’ve had to slow down in my classes, and I don’t hear as well as I used to. I need to take extra time to finish tests and quizzes.”

However, this hasn’t curtailed Barberena’s resolve to enter nursing. After graduating this spring from St. Monica’s Catholic High School in Santa Monica, she will enter Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, where she will study nursing.

“I plan to graduate as an RN, and I think I would like to study more after that. I’d like to work in neonatal care.”

Getting a head start

Rather than waiting for her clinical training in nursing to study her intended career, Barberena chose to gain further exposure to healthcare by volunteering at Cedars-Sinai as a nurse assistant. Her role on a progressive care unit includes refilling supplies for the nursing staff, creating admission packets, responding to patients’ call bells, and answering phones.

Alexandra Eskin, RN, BSN, works on the unit where Barberena volunteers weekly and has noticed Barberena’s strong desire to be a nurse.

“She’s very open to learning and asks lots of questions about what nursing is like and what I like about being a nurse,” Eskin said. “She’s very nice to the patients she interacts with and very caring.”

Eskin said Barberena’s enthusiasm for patient care is evident in her dependability; she comes in every weekend, on time.

“Karla is highly motivated, even though she sometimes hears nurses comment about the tough days.

“I think she has great potential. She can bring a lot to nursing because she’s not just task-oriented; she sees the human side of it.”

That’s how Barberena views her future, too. “I see myself on the other side. I was a patient, and now I’m going to be the one who can help the patient. I want to feel that I can make a difference for patients like other nurses did for me.”


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By | 2020-04-15T09:37:59-04:00 May 1st, 2012|Categories: Regional, West|0 Comments

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