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Experiencing THON, 70 miles away: How Penn State nursing students make impact in Hershey

THON, Final Four, Dancers Embrace

Dancers embrace during THON at the Bryce Jordan Center, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

As roughly 15,000 THON-goers crowded in the Bryce Jordan Center for the final four hours of THON 2019, Connor Forjan spent her time 70 miles away, in the Hershey Medical Center interacting one-on-one with Four Diamonds children not able to attend THON.

Forjan (senior-nursing), along with many Penn State nursing students, has the unique experience of seeing THON’s impact behind closed doors.

“THON weekend, I elected to stay at the hospital, so during the Final Four we were with the kids playing games, watching TV and just hanging out,” Forjan said. “THON is wonderful [in State College], but you forget about those kids that can’t make it. It’s great to see those survivors on stage, but you still have those really sick kids still getting treatment, and I think they deserve something just as special as the huge event in the BJC.”

Unless they are involved in groups like ROTC, an athletic team or Schreyer Honors College, nursing students are required to spend a year at the Hershey Medical Center to get experience in the hospital environment.

Despite being away from State College, nursing students continue their classes at Hershey and often shadow professional nurses. Not only do they get the nursing experience unavailable at University Park, but they also get to work and volunteer with Four Diamonds patients.

The Student Nurses Association of Penn State (SNAPS) offers nursing students a way to connect with THON through volunteering, community service and a nursing network. Forjan and Molly Williams serve as president and vice president, respectively, of SNAPS.

Williams (senior - nursing) said the Hershey experience helps many nursing students mature. She said the year away from State College was worth it, as she was able to work with Penn State medical students and had humbling experiences.

“You definitely got to see the impact that THON has down [in Hershey], even going room to room seeing the pictures, talking to the families — the impact is everywhere,” Williams said.

Through SNAPS, Williams was able to schedule volunteering hours in her free time, where she helped during events like arts and crafts days and door-to-door trick-or-treating for the patients.

Jonas Brothers THON teen

Nick, Kevin and Joe Jonas pose with THON teen Lily in the Hershey Medical Center on Aug. 31. 

Williams mentioned one Four Diamonds patient who stuck out to her specifically, saying the girl brightened many of her days.

Hospitalized for a few years, the girl always had her door and room completely decorated with lamps, blankets, fluffy chairs and toys. Williams said she made the room feel like home with pictures that she drew or were drawn for her.

Forjan said she likes to call the Hershey experience “studying abroad.”

“We still got our weekends of State College time,” Forjan said. “It was hard living out of your suitcase as I would forget things — I would wear sneakers up to town and only have tennis shoes to attend a professional event.”

Despite the large change from being on a campus of over 40,000 people, Forjan said that the opportunity allows one to get to know all their fellow nursing students. She added it was a big change as there were only around 100 nursing students in the small area of Hershey.

“Hershey is an incredible hospital,” Forjan said. “Especially going my junior year, I was able to take certain classes at the hospital like pediatrics and obstetrics.”

Since Forjan took these pediatrics classes, she was able be in an intensive care unit setting to experience what the care units in Hershey were really like.

She said this experience was very different than the nursing experience in State College, as there are less opportunities to gain experience in State College.

“[The experience] showed that everyone has equally important jobs in a hospital,” Forjan said.

Forjan also volunteered at the Ronald McDonald House, which hosts families who had kids staying at Hershey. This allowed her to interact with the families who were dealing with their child’s diagnosis.

She also got one-on-one experience with Four Diamonds patients, as well. During pediatric clinicals, nursing students were able to spend a few days on the same floor as Four Diamonds children. Forjan said every child in the hospital had some connection to THON.

Two child life specialists, Bethany Aney and Sarah Miller, also spoke about the behind-the-scenes of THON life in Penn State Hershey.

Miller works as a child life support associate, coordinating donations, planning special events and organizing visitation for the pediatric patients.

She works with all pediatric patients, but does have experience in coordinating Four Diamonds patients and families.

This year, Miller is working more directly with how THON volunteers are utilized within the clinic.

“In clinic, starting in October, up until around THON weekend, we have THON captains coming into clinics two days a week, visiting the in-patient units on Fridays to do activities with patients,” Miller said.

These visitations allow many of the THON organizations and committees to send members to spend time with their sponsored Four Diamonds children.

“We find that it is a great way for THON students to connect with our patients and have face-to-face interaction that gives an idea of what their days consist of when coming into clinic to get chemotherapy,” she said.

THON, Final Four, Total Raised

THON leaders present the total amount raised during THON at the Bryce Jordan Center, Sunday, Feb. 17, 2019.

Miller added the time allows students to meet the families of their Four Diamonds children, share their THON experiences and discuss why they are involved in THON.

Also a childcare specialist, Aney helps prepare, teach and help patients and families cope with a child’s diagnosis. She focuses specifically in the outpatient hematology and oncology clinic.

“In the beginning, it is a lot of providing a listening ear to help them verbally process [the diagnosis], equipping the parents with the appropriate language to talk to their kid about it so they are able to understand,” Aney said.

Aney said that the process during and after diagnosis with Four Diamonds patients is a team effort. Social workers, team psychologists, nurse specialists, practitioners and others work to help every patient and family.

“THON has made this clinic possible — they take care of and cover the medical costs of patients that come in and pay the salary of various specialists here,” Aney said. “Families are very shocked to learn Four Diamonds will cover all their medical expenses, and that is a huge relief for them that they can fully focus on caring for their child instead of thinking of costs.”

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