When Children’s National Medical Center had to distinguish among several staff members named Allie, each Allie took a nickname. There was “Food Allie,” a dietician; “Red Allie,” who has red hair; “Nurse Allie,” who is a nurse and “Clinic Allie,” who works in the clinic.
So what name did that leave for Allison Isaacson? “Fun Allie” because she is one of the few people on staff who works in an office filled with video games and other distractions for young patients to take their minds off whatever problems brought them to the hospital.
Isaacson, 25, a Washington resident, became a patient navigator with the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults at Children’s National in 2014. Her job is to provide counseling, support and education to newly-diagnosed adolescents and their families, to help them adjust to life with cancer.
How did you become a patient navigator?
I was a camp kid growing up and also ended up being a camp counselor. The camps always paired me with teenagers, so I learned to really love this population and get along well with them. On the flip side, I spent a little bit of time in the hospital as a teenager because I have a rare metabolic disorder. So this was an opportunity to pair that age group with being in the hospital and coming up with ways to make [teenagers’] experiences as normal as possible in an abnormal setting.
What disorder do you have?
I can’t process fats the same way other people can. But it took a really long time to figure that out because I was a really active kid and a competitive soccer player. I had to use a lot of energy in my day-to-day activities and would run out [of energy] really fast. That kind of presented itself in different ways, but two or three times I got really sick and the third time they [sent me to the hospital]. Within six weeks I was diagnosed me with carnitine palmitoyltransferase type II deficiency [at age 15]. It’s manageable through diet and lifestyle, but once in a while I’ll get sick and there is nothing I can do about it. Sometimes I end up in the hospital, but because of that I’m pretty comfortable in the setting.
What goes on in the teen room?
The biggest challenge most of my patients face is social isolation. When you have a cancer diagnosis you can be in the hospital for a very long time. This teen room is a space for them to get out of their rooms and meet other teenagers.
I have patients who, during their stay, will live in here. When I’m here 9 to 5, they are in here 9 to 5. Then I have patients that I have to drag down here, and once they are down here they will come all of the time. I also have some who just are not interested, and [all of those options are] fine, but I want them to know they have a space here that is just theirs.
What is your trick for connecting with teens?
Luckily, I have the fun job. When teens first get here, they are meeting all of these new people like doctors, nurses, dieticians and psychologists. All of these people are saying: “You have to do this, this and this.”
I’m the person that is optional. I get to say: “If you want to, this is here.” I have all the things that are appealing
so in that way it’s not hard to get in their good graces. I also think it’s really important with teenagers to be authentic. I’m not here to sugarcoat this, but here is what we can do to make [the experience] a little bit better.
Is there an emotional toll on you?
There’s definitely an emotional [toll] whenever you are working with cancer patients, let alone young people with cancer. But at the same time, I don’t come to work and cry with people every day. I play video games with them, I play Mario Kart [a popular video game] all the time, and Bingo and help them have that moment of the day where they can laugh and relax.
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