Ever since she was a little girl, Jazzlind Cunningham longed to be a nurse. Something about the profession drew her in, especially after the care she received from nurses at Children’s of Alabama.
Jazzlind was born with sickle cell disease. From the time she was an infant, she traveled monthly from her home in Montgomery to Children’s in Birmingham to see pediatric hematologist Dr. Thomas Howard.
“My sickle cell was very uncontrolled as a child, so I started receiving monthly blood transfusions and eventually red cell exchange transfusions,” Jazzlind said. “I had to visit Children’s frequently for as long as I can remember. Children’s became my home away from home. I understood why I was there and why I didn’t feel good, but like any kid, I never wanted to be feeling bad and at the hospital. But I have such fond memories of my time there. The nurses in outpatient clinic became like family. At Children’s, I always felt like I fit in. No one wondered why my eyes were yellow or pitied me like the sick girl, and they would hold my hand when I was crying and made me feel safe.”
Jazzlind was hospitalized several times and endured multiple surgeries, including a port placement. But every time, Jazzlind’s nurses and other hospital staff went great lengths to put a smile on her face. “They would come in my room with all sorts of activities for me to do, whether it was a craft activity, coloring or toys to play with,” she said. “They always had something going on to get me out of our hospital room when possible and put my mind on something else besides my sickness.”
Jazzlind recalls the nurses in Clinic 8 going out of their way to remind her that her sickness doesn’t define her. “They were instrumental in making sure I knew I could be anything I wanted to be,” she said. “They never made me feel like I was handicapped or had any limitations. They always let me know I could achieve whatever I put my mind to. Dr. Howard was the same. He constantly reminded me that I could do and be whatever I wanted.”
It was at Children’s that Jazzlind decided she wanted to be just like the nurses who took care of her. She went on to graduate from nursing school at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus and today works as a nurse on Children’s hematology and oncology unit – the same unit where she was once a patient.
“My experience in life means that I really empathize with patients in the hospital,” Jazzlind said. “I may not have the same issue they have, but I sympathize with the feelings they are going through of not wanting to be there and not understanding why it’s happening to them. My goal is to encourage them while also giving them special care because I came from being a patient, too. When I tell them I understand, I mean it.
“What I want other kids with sickle cell to know is that at the end of the day, you aren’t your diagnosis,” Jazzlind said. “Whatever you put your mind to, you can do it. It may take you longer and your path may not be the same as someone else, but you can do it.”