Cancer fight led her to become a nurse

Patient Stories |

07/04/2024

Bridget 1

For Bridget Balcerak, beating Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a teen at Riley inspired her to return to care for others.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Bridget Balcerak knows what it feels like to fight for your life.

At 15, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She beat it once, only to have it return a year later. A stem cell transplant saved her, but not without leaving some emotional scars.

Now six years out from that transplant, Balcerak is back at Riley Hospital for Children – not as a patient, but as a nurse in hematology-oncology, where she can help others go to battle like she did.

It’s a full-circle moment that the former Martinsville High School volleyball player does not take lightly, crediting the nurses who took care of her for inspiring her to follow that same path.

“I wanted to be a teacher growing up,” Balcerak said last week at the end of her orientation shift. “But then I got to experience Riley and all the sweet nurses.”

Among those nurses who treated her as a teen and now will work alongside her are Jake Harmon, Baylee Messamore and Lizzie Adams, the latter now a nurse practitioner on the team.

“Lizzie is one of the first people I really admired as a nurse,” Balcerak said as she and the other nurses talked about her time on the unit.

Although she received much of her treatment as an outpatient and grew very attached to the nurses there, the weeks she was inpatient were a difficult time for Balcerak.

“It was very scary not being able to go home,” she said. “Lizzie was the first example I remember of kindness and comfort.”

Adams is touched by Balcerak’s remarks, remembering that she herself was a “baby nurse” at the time.

“She was one of my first patients when I started,” Adams said, remembering how the teen wrote her a letter thanking her for her kindness and for inspiring her.

“It still brings tears to my eyes almost every single time I read it,” the nurse practitioner said.

Those long days and nights on the stem cell unit are still a blur to Balcerak, but Messamore was one of the first to welcome her back to Riley when the former patient began her capstone project on stem cell during her last semester in nursing school.

“She took good care of me and would talk to me about anything,” Balcerak said of Messamore, who also treasures a note from her former patient.

And then there’s Harmon, who carries a backpack adorned with colorful bracelets of current and former cancer patients.

At first, he didn’t recognize Balcerak when she returned to the unit as a PCA. To be fair, she was older, had long hair and was on the other side of a patient bed one evening, while he was also in the room.

It was during that interaction that Harmon had what he calls an “aha” moment. It clicked that this nurse in training was indeed a former patient of his, but he had to wait until he and Balcerak were out of the room to tell her.

“You don’t expect someone you took care of to be working here,” he said later. “I had her little purple wristband that I wore on my wrist for so long and put on my backpack.”

She remembered him, however, right away.

“Jake was the face that came to mind when I went through stem cell,” Balcerak said. “I went through some really tough patches, and he was there for me.”

She can’t hold back the tears at this point.

“It makes me very emotional. You advocated for me so much when I was terrified. I’m just really thankful for you,” she told him.

“My whole family loves Jake. He would sit in my room and let me talk and be scared. When I first came back here and I saw him, I didn’t say anything because I thought he wouldn’t remember me. But I want people to know I remember them.”

That includes the nurses in the Riley Outpatient Hem-Onc clinic, who played a big part in her decision to become a nurse, she said.

“They made every visit fun for me, and I looked forward to getting chemo, only because it meant I got to see and visit them.”

Balcerak will spend the next several weeks in orientation and training as a new nurse, but her new colleagues believe she is already making an impact.

“I feel like her patients are going to be absolutely blessed to have her as a nurse,” Adams said. “She has gone through the experience, and she can be an advocate. She knows first-hand the feelings, the situation. I think that is invaluable.”

Knowing that Balcerak has pursued nursing in some part because of their care is humbling, Messamore said.

“I was a relatively new nurse when I took care of Bridget in 2018. She was one of my first adolescent-young adult patients, and I have a really strong passion for those patients,” Messamore said.

“I remember she was here around Christmas time. That was such a hard time for anybody, especially someone at that age. Seeing how much she went through and now coming back and wanting to help the people who are in her shoes, it’s amazing to be a part of that.”

Balcerak acknowledges a mix of emotions during her time back at Riley, first as a PCA and now as a registered nurse.

“When I came for my interview, I had to go in the bathroom and cry for like 20 minutes,” she said. “It brought back a lot of memories that I had suppressed.”

But on her first day shadowing as a PCA, she was grateful for the mask she was required to wear at the time.

“I just had the dumbest smile on my face,” she laughed. “I was so excited. Without a doubt I knew I was where I was supposed to be.”