People of the U: Anita Vanderford and Paige Robinson
Published on Thursday, September 21, 2017
By: Annie Oeth
The University of Mississippi Medical Center is more than just a livelihood for Anita Vanderford and her daughter Paige Robinson. It’s a life.
Batson Children’s Hospital has been and continues to be a house of hope for Vanderford, the associate director of ambulatory operations at the Children’s Cancer Center. The place that brought health to Paige, now a child life assistant at Batson Children’s Hospital.
Vanderford first walked into UMMC some 26 years ago to receive some scary news.
Dr. Gail Megason told her that then-10-month-old Paige, had severe aplastic anemia, a rare and potentially deadly condition in which the body’s bone marrow doesn’t make enough new blood cells.
To save Paige’s life, a bone marrow transplant was needed. At the time, the procedure was not being done in Mississippi, so the family traveled to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where Paige, at 16 months, underwent the procedure, which requires high doses of radiation or chemotherapy before a transfusion of stem cells is received through an IV tube.
“But we couldn’t find a donor,” said Vanderford. “There wasn’t a match in the national bone marrow registry.”
About 70 percent of those in need of a bone marrow transplant do not have a matching donor in their families, but Paige beat those odds when her aunt, Vanderford’s sister Lisa McCartney, was a match.
“She was a better match than I was,” said Vanderford.
Once in her small body, the cells moved naturally into the bone marrow. The danger of the procedure is that it leaves patients vulnerable to infections before the new cells take root.
The family stayed in Kentucky four months, monitoring Paige’s progress, before returning home to Mississippi.
“We’ve been seeing Dr. Megason ever since then,” said Vanderford. Paige grew up seeing specialists including hematologists and an ophthalmologist, but Megason was special to the family from the start.
“She was fabulous,” Vanderford said, “and very encouraging. She taught me that I was Paige’s best advocate. Doctors may take care of 60 kids, but I was taking care of one. My main focus was one patient, Paige.
“I try to relay that to families now,” said Vanderford, “that they are their children’s advocates.”
If Vanderford made an impression on Megason, the reverse was also true. “I knew she would be a great nurse,” Megason said of Vanderford, “by how she cared for Paige and how she studied her condition.”
Though Vanderford said nursing was not on her short list of careers – “in high school, I would faint at the sight of blood” – Megason planted the idea of a medical career.
“She encouraged me to go back to school,” said Vanderford, “Dr. Megason and my mom.”
The two persuaded Vanderford to enroll in nursing at Hinds Community College. “As I was finishing up at Hinds,” she said, “I heard from a friend. She said, ‘Call Dr. Megason. She’s got a job for you.’ It was as a BMT (bone marrow transplant) nurse.”
She would be helping patients and families who were on the road she and Paige traveled, putting her in the position to better understand their needs.
“I loved it,” Vanderford said.
As her career progressed, Vanderford became a nurse manager and then, began working with Megason again as associate director of ambulatory operations at the Children’s Cancer Center. “It is very rewarding.”
Paige knows just how her mother feels.
Having grown up going to Batson, she remembers the clinic visits and needle sticks, but the state’s only children’s hospital brought her a healthy future. Paige earned a degree in education at Delta State University, but teaching in a school setting wasn’t a perfect fit. She then learned about an open position in child life, bringing her back to the place she remembered.
Now she comforts children facing medical treatment, whether it’s cardiac surgery or cancer. “I haven’t worked with children who are going through bone marrow transplants like I did yet,” she said, “but if I do, I will tell them that it’s really hard but that it does get better.”