Pediatric cancer patient grows up to be nurse who treats kids with cancer

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SALT LAKE CITY — Oliver Tibbitts, age 10, and his nurse, Rachel Barclay, share a special bond. It's one that goes beyond nurse and patient. She understands him because she's been there.

Barclay, a pediatric oncology nurse at Primary Children's Hospital, wrote a letter to her younger self about the time that tried her to the core.

"Dear Rachel, I know this is a terrifying time for you," Barclay said, reading from the letter. "You're going to be pushed physically, emotionally and spiritually."

At 16, Barclay had acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. "Luckily, I'm still here," she said.

Her ordeal inspired her to become a nurse. "I found myself really anxious, needing to come help out because it made me feel better," she said.

Tibbitts has been in the hospital for over two months. On Sept. 4, doctors diagnosed him with acute myeloid leukemia, the same cancer Barclay had.

Barclay took the time to mention all his stuffed animals by name and count the small, colorful toy characters that come up on each of his meal trays. It's this kind of connection that made all the difference for Barclay.

She read, "Someday, as the painful memories fade away, you will realize the overwhelming impact this experience will have on your life and who you become."

An experimental drug and a bone marrow transplant helped cure Barclay. She read from the letter, "Even as you walk out of this hospital healthy, there will be those who will not, and knowing this will be the hardest part."

Though Tibbitts' condition is serious, Barclay says she will be there for him all the way. She uses memories from her own trying time to help him cope. She said writing the letter to her younger self was a learning experience.

"It opened up a lot more feelings when I actually had to address it more than just on the surface," she said. "Most of all, realizing that I'm still in a way healing from that, the whole ordeal."

Watching Barclay and Tibbitts play together in his hospital room as she administered medicine, it was hard to know who was healing whom. "I need these kids in some ways more than they need me," she said.

Beyond nursing, Barclay is being what she knows Tibbitts needs most: a true friend.

You can watch Barclay reading the full letter on YouTube at


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