Young Leukemia Survivor Inspired to Care for Others

 

Lauren Mullikin, 23, of Edwardsville, Ill., is an aspiring hematology-oncology nurse. While she’s always been interested in the medical field, her passion for this specialty was sparked by her own experience.

In 2013, just two weeks shy of her high school graduation, Lauren began feeling unwell. Working as a gymnastics coach, she was demonstrating different skills to her students when she noticed she didn’t have enough energy to even jump off the ground. Thinking she was sick with the flu, Lauren stayed home from school for a few days before seeing her primary care physician.

Presenting many random symptoms, her doctor ran blood work, and the results showed something was awry. She was quickly admitted to Anderson Hospital in Maryville, Ill., for additional testing. The following day, a consulting hematologist told Lauren and her family it was likely she had leukemia or lymphoma and was taken by ambulance to Siteman Cancer Center. There, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL.

“My diagnosis was very overwhelming. I, fortunately, hadn’t had any experience with cancer prior to this, so we didn’t know what to expect — and that was very scary,” says Lauren. “But I had this feeling, ‘I can do this.’”

Lauren and her father with shaved heads in 2013. See Lauren’s photo gallery.

Under the care of Keith Stockerl-Goldstein, MD, an oncologist at Siteman, Lauren began her five-week, in-patient treatment that consisted of intensive chemotherapy.

Called to Nursing

Lauren found it easiest to keep in good spirits when she was busy and productive. A medical technician on the hospital floor taught her how to loom knit hats, which she donated back to the hospital for other cancer patients — and still does once a year. For her, focusing on the positives that came from her diagnosis helped, like the people she met and the things she learned to do.

Throughout her treatment, Lauren’s family grew even closer. She was supported by her parents, Rose and Mark; her brother, Nolan; and her boyfriend, Logan, and his family; as well as her extended family and friends.

While in the hospital, Lauren was also comforted by her care team. “If I had to be anywhere, I couldn’t imagine a better place with better people,” says Lauren. “My nurses and oncologist always took as much time as needed to explain everything extremely well. I still keep in touch with them all — it’s really like being a part of a family there.”

Lauren celebrating her high school graduation with her boyfriend, Logan, (right) and his family.

When Lauren was released from the hospital, she was in remission but continued to receive seven months of intravenous chemotherapy followed by two years of oral maintenance chemotherapy.

Lauren walked at her high school graduation and began college in the fall, pursuing occupational therapy. However, she quickly realized her heart was in nursing. “That’s where I felt I had the most to give,” she says. Once she finished treatment, Lauren began nursing school at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis on a scholarship, where she is currently a junior. In addition to her studies, she works as a technician on an oncology floor at a local hospital.

An Advocate for Leukemia Patients

Since her diagnosis, Lauren has dedicated her time to helping other cancer patients. Her Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Light the Night walking team, Rich and Lauren’s Half Fast Walk’n Club — which she formed with another leukemia patient she met during her treatment — has raised more than $100,000 for cancer research and support in its five years of participation.

Lauren and Rich bonding during their treatment.

This same patient, Rich, also introduced Lauren to Be the Match. She encourages others to join the registry, and Lauren’s boyfriend, Logan, even matched as a bone marrow donor for a patient. When Lauren came across the Be the Match club on her college campus, a club that educates students about bone marrow transplants and helps them with registration, she joined and quickly became president. In their four years as an organization, several students have matched with patients in need and completed bone marrow donations.

“It takes people who’ve gone through this diagnosis to advocate for change and improvement so all patients can have a good outcome,” she says. “If others before me hadn’t, I might not have had as great of an outcome with my treatment.”

Happy and healthy, Lauren is passionate about continuing her work and studies. She plans to graduate May 2020, hoping to use her experience to care for others. “I am 100 percent where I am supposed to be,” says Lauren. “I wouldn’t have ever found my path if this hadn’t happened to me five years ago.”