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Patients in the Spotlight: Morgan Smithling

Patient Inspires Others to Never Give Up 

Morgan SmithlingAs an 11 year old, the most Morgan Smithling was concerned about was practicing for her swim meets, what her sisters were up to, and showing her family’s Brown Swiss cows in the next county fair. In January 2013, however, Morgan, a then sixth grader at Marcus Whitman Middle School in the town of Rushville, and her family learned she would have to face a much bigger concern – cancer.

In November 2012, Morgan, now 12, occasionally complained that she was suffering from back pain. Her parents Doreen and Kevin thought it had to do with her sciatic nerve, but when the pain intensified in January they knew something wasn’t right. Doreen took Morgan to the local Interlakes Orthopedic facility, where doctors ordered an MRI and discovered a tumor in her pelvis. Morgan was then referred to Strong Memorial Hospital. Doctors performed a biopsy and, shortly after, Morgan was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma, a rare bone cancer that primarily affects children and adolescents.

Prior to starting chemotherapy treatments at Golisano Children’s Hospital on Feb. 15, 2013, Morgan could hardly walk and had to rely on getting around in a wheelchair. She had been an active member of several swim teams, including her school’s modified girls’ swim team and area swim club, as well as the Clifton Springs YMCA, but the pain and immobility became too much, holding Morgan back from one of her greatest passions.  

In addition to 26 rounds of chemotherapy, Morgan also underwent 31 radiation treatments, spanning from May to July 2013. After only a few of her treatments, Morgan’s tumor started to shrink, causing her to regain a great deal of her strength and allowing her to get in the pool again. Morgan’s determination and energy to get better gave her the courage to keep fighting. The candidness of her doctors, Chief of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Craig Mullen, M.D., Ph.D., and oncology radiologist Louis Constine, M.D., also gave Morgan and her family a sense of hope. Cancer is difficult to understand at any age, but Mullen and Constine did all that they could to make sure Morgan knew what was happening every step of the way.

“The way they described things to Morgan on a level that she could understand was very encouraging,” Doreen said. “They spoke directly to her and were always very hopeful and straight forward. As parents, we couldn’t have asked for better doctors for our daughter.”

As a frequent inpatient on the children’s hospital’s 4-3600 unit, Morgan also formed a special bond with the unit’s nursing team, which specializes in treating children with cancer. The nurses made it a point to be involved in several different fundraising events held in the community in Morgan’s honor. “Every nurse in the group goes above and beyond, putting everything they have into what they do for their patients,” Doreen said. “Morgan went through some pretty physical and emotional struggles and they were a huge support, helping our family cope as well.”

The nursing team had such a positive impact on Morgan’s experience that she and her family decided to donate an “end of chemo” remission bell to the unit. They learned of the concept from nurse leader and care coordinator Amy Roth, R.N., and immediately knew it would be a great idea and addition to the hospital. Engraved on the bell is the inspiring phrase “Never Give Up,” a mantra Morgan told herself and wanted to share with other cancer patients, encouraging them and giving them hope to be able to one day ring the bell.

Remission BellSurrounded by her mom, dad, and nursing team, Morgan celebrated her last chemotherapy treatment by ringing the “end of chemo” bell loud and proud on Oct. 12, 2013. Members of 4-3600 made the occasion extra special by singing a special end-of-chemo song.

“For the fight the kids have to go through, I can’t even describe the incredible moment we shared when she rang that bell,” Doreen said.

After her follow up appointments, Morgan makes it a point to visit the crew, where they catch up on school, swimming, and more. The relationship Morgan developed with her medical team is one that she and her family will always cherish. Her time with the unit staff left a mark on them, too.

“Morgan and her family were always concerned about taking care of others even while Morgan was fighting her own battle,” Roth said. “The bell they donated to 4-36 is a testament to their positivity and a great way to celebrate the strength and courage of all of our patients who go through so much, physically and emotionally, as they battle their cancer.” 

Roth said the new tradition of ringing the bell at the end of chemotherapy has already started evolving. The other families on the unit ask about it when they hear it being rung and it serves as inspiration to them.

“The crowds assembled for these bell ringing ceremonies have been growing in size and have involved lots of confetti, singing, chanting, cookie cakes, and a lot of smiles, happy tears, and hugs,” Roth said.

As for Morgan, she is happy to be back in the swing of things with her normal routine. Even during her chemotherapy treatment she was showing her Brown Swiss cows with her sisters in the Ontario County Fair. The cancer may have slowed Morgan down, but it never stopped her from pursuing her passions and giving up. Her will and spirit are an inspiration for all patients hoping to follow in her footsteps of ringing the remission bell.