Beloved Oncology Nurse Brings Legacy of Caring Full Circle

Leslie sitting on bench

Leslie Griffith hadn’t considered a career in nursing until she was cared for by a kind nurse during a difficult time. The nurse’s compassion changed the course of Leslie’s life. She worked as a nurse for 40+ years until her retirement this July, much of that time spent caring for children with cancer. Now, the legacy has come full circle as she inspires others to go into medicine.

“Because of my own personal experience, nursing became more than a job. It became a thank-you to God for being alive,” she says.

When Leslie was 18, an x-ray after a horseback riding accident revealed a benign, rare bone tumor in her neck. Doctors worried that it might grow and impinge on her spinal cord, causing paralysis. She spent several months in a hospital bed, immobilized in a Stryker frame that literally sandwiched her between two stiff mats with tongs in her skull to ensure immobility. Even though her tumor wasn’t malignant, she deeply understands what it’s like to undergo lengthy treatments and surgeries, and to fear for your life.

“It was a life-changing experience—going from 100% healthy to all of a sudden facing the possibility of paralysis. The situation was overwhelmingly frightening. My nurse, Mrs. McHue, will always hold a special place in my heart, as she was able to hold the space for me in my vulnerability, provide encouragement, and offer many acts of kindness during my many months of hospitalizations,” Leslie says. “Her compassion made all the difference in going through a difficult experience. I don’t take for granted being alive or being able to walk.”

Her plan was to be a liberal arts major at Trinity University, but instead she did a 180-degree turn and headed to nursing school at the University of Texas in Houston. She also earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology at Santa Clara University. Over the years, she received even more training in holistic and spiritual practices.

“Having been on the other side as a patient has been an asset in having the empathy to connect with my patients, as I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and discouraged. I have always made it a point to care for the whole person—physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” she says.

Leslie started working at the main Stanford Hospital in the early 1980s as an acute care pediatric nurse, after working in three other hospitals. When Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford opened in 1991, she decided to specialize in pediatric oncology. She watched the hospital transform from a smaller, local hospital to a sophisticated world-class system that offers state-of-the-art treatments and conducts cutting-edge research.

“My work never felt like a job to me. Even though I was there to help others, my patients and their families deeply inspired me with their strength and resiliency,” Leslie says. “Honestly, I feel extremely blessed that I had the chance to share in that space of love within families.”

Advances have improved the five-year survival rate for childhood cancer from 58% in the mid-1970s to 85% and higher today, according to the American Cancer Society. Leslie had a firsthand view of that progress, watching new medicines, new care techniques, and better surgeries improve her patients’ outcomes. She also watched the cultural changes of more women becoming doctors and more men becoming nurses. And she witnessed more fathers becoming involved with their child’s care and bedside vigil as the years passed.

Vivek wearing baseball jersey

Leslie has inspired countless people with her warm and genuine nature throughout her time at Packard Children’s Hospital. One is Vivek Chotai, a premed student attending the University of California, Los Angeles. Two days after high school graduation, Vivek was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a blood and bone marrow cancer.

He spent 186 days in the hospital. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he couldn’t leave his room. Normally, a teenage cancer patient can spend time in the teen lounge, attend support groups, or visit other patients on the floor, with precautions. Because of the pandemic, only one parent was able to visit, and his siblings and friends couldn’t visit. It was a lonely, scary time for the 17-year-old, who had to fight for his life, essentially alone. Except he had Leslie and the other nurses.

“Oncology nurses are amazing people. It takes a lot of effort to stay positive when working with kids with cancer every single day,” says Vivek. “Leslie was one of the happiest, kindest people I have ever met. Having her there to talk with me and comfort me made a huge impact. She is one of the reasons I want to be a doctor.”

Vivek was so impacted by his cancer experience and Leslie’s care that he wants to help others in similar situations. He is currently considering a career as an oncologist.

“Leslie is this extremely positive person who chose to return to the setting where she suffered—to help others cope with a similar misfortune, sadness, and pain. It’s really inspiring,” he says.

During Vivek’s stay at the Bass Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Diseases, he was granted a wish by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. As an act of giving back, he designed shirts for cancer survivors during his hospital stay, which he hopes will be sold in hospital gift shops. They will be available through Macy’s department stores by the end of 2022, and half of all proceeds will go toward fulfilling other kids’ wishes.

“My only intention is to help others who are going through cancer like Leslie helped me,” Vivek says.

Leslie’s colleagues recently honored her at a party in the courtyard at Packard Children’s Hospital. She loves nature, so the setting was ideal. Many people from across the hospital came to celebrate her retirement and her 40+ years of service. Leslie says that she will miss certain moments, like when the staff gathers outside on the steps to clap and give well wishes to a child as he or she leaves the hospital following the end of treatment.

“I will always treasure my years at Packard Children’s Hospital. I’ll especially miss those special moments that you don’t find in ordinary life. It has been an honor to witness the resiliency of the human spirit, to live through moments of both triumph and despair with my patients and families,” she says.

Leslie will be dearly missed. Her legacy of love and compassion will live on in the nurses and doctors at the Bass Center, and in the patients, like Vivek, that she helped to heal and inspire. 

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