ST. PAUL, Minn. — People say it’s important to give back to your community. Jennifer Pratt is doing exactly that.
She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, when she was just 11. The diagnosis meant she spent many days in the hospital.
Pratt’s chemotherapy took over a year, and because she spent so much time at Children’s Minnesota in St. Paul, the hospital staff became like family to her. It was during her treatment that she decided to become a doctor and, 20 years later, she’s living her dream as a hospitalist in the same place where she received treatment.
“[Cancer] is something that makes you stronger,” she said.
Her journey started when Pratt felt an unusual pain in her leg. She was referred to Children’s by a pediatrician, and an x-ray revealed a tumor.
Osteosarcoma is a rare form of cancer. Every year, according to the American Cancer Society, between 800 and 900 cases are diagnosed in the US. Half of those are in children and teens.
The two most common treatments are surgery and chemotherapy. In certain cases, radiation therapy is used. Pratt had many sessions of chemotherapy — spanning more than a year — and eventually had surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She then needed to use crutches for nine months.
The chemotherapy for this form of cancer, Pratt said, is usually pretty intense and is given over multiple days in a row at the hospital. She had to go to chemotherapy sessions before and after surgery. “I would go home and recover over the course of several days,” she said.
Her diagnosis was difficult to deal with, but she had support from family and friends — so much that she decided to document her experience in a scrapbook.
“I think the whole journey of going through a cancer treatment is so significant and life-altering,” Pratt said. Within the scrapbook were articles, letters people wrote to her and small words of encouragement.
The most important part, she said, was making sure she and her family documented all of the positive things that were also happening, like her trip to Disney World through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “It was a valuable way of reflecting,” Pratt said.
At the time of her Disney trip, Pratt wanted to be an animator. She got to meet with one of the animators of the characters in many Disney movies, and that helped her get through the treatment.
She was unsure what the future would hold but soon decided she wanted to help change the lives of other children — and not through animation.
Lessons from someone who’s been there
Pratt is considered cured of osteosarcoma, and after 20 years, doctors say the cancer will not return. She graduated from Midwestern University’s medical school in Chicago, and her residency brought her back to Children’s.
“I have always wanted to work at Children’s,” Pratt said, because the hospital’s values are parallel to her own. “They put kids first, and that’s really where my values are aligned to,” Pratt said. “(Working here) is a dream come true.”
Her favorite part of the job is her interaction with children every day, and she appreciates the positive feelings every time a kid is sent home with a smile, doing better than they were before.
“It’s a unique experience, going through a cancer diagnosis” at such a young age, she said. “And just feeling the sense of understanding and being able to relate with other children that are going through a serious illness.”
Fortunately, she said, more kids are surviving cancer than ever, and she encourages everyone battling cancer to never give up.
Like Children’s did for her, she tries to be supportive and positive and make it easier for patients to deal with such a difficult diagnosis.
“I think that it’s important to stay positive,” she said. “And always look to the future.”