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Khara Holland: A glimpse at the life of a superhero in scrubs

Khara Holland is a traveling nurse. A traveling pediatric hematology oncology nurse, to be exact.

Peds-hem/onc.

That is how she introduces herself; the job comes first, then almost as a sidenote, her name.

“It’s pronounced Cara. I tell my patients ‘I-care-about-you,’” Holland explains. Then she laughs, “Or Batman. One of my patients thinks my name is Batman.”

Holland is four days from finishing her assignment at Kalispell Regional Medical Center-Northwest Oncology and Hematology Pediatrics in Montana. A 2012 graduate of the accelerated B.S.N. program at the Mennonite College of Nursing (MCN), Holland’s specialization in pediatric hematology oncology means that she spends the majority of her time caring for children or teens suffering from blood diseases or childhood cancer.

Like the child who thinks her name is Batman.

But, in a role where many would struggle, Holland has found her purpose. “I hear a lot of people talk about not being in love with what they do. I am absolutely in love with my job. I love travel nursing and no matter where I go, I love my kids,” she said. Her voice has a bit of an edge as she speaks—a blending of conviction, resolve, and quiet strength.

According to Holland, most of her colleagues would say that the best thing about being a travel nurse is the obvious: travel nurses get to explore.

“Travel nurses get to see places many people would never see otherwise,” she said. “Like Montana. I probably never would have come to Montana.”

Holland probably never would have made it to Normal, either, if not for Mennonite College of Nursing.

“Before I decided to become a nurse, I spent eight years in the Army as a civil affairs sergeant. Afterwards, I worked in surgical pathology. I got to hold cancer in my hands and cut into it,” Holland said. Again, you can hear the passion in Holland’s voice as she speaks. One can almost imagine her standing there in her lab coat, inspecting cancerous tissue with scalpel in hand.

When Holland began looking at nursing schools, she knew she wanted to do an accelerated program; she already had a bachelor’s degree and wanted to get her nursing career started as quickly as possible. Knowing that she was going to do whatever it took to be a nurse, Holland sent out applications to schools with the best NCLEX (National Council Licensure Exam) pass rates.

At the time, Mennonite College of Nursing’s NCLEX pass rate percentage was in the upper 90s. Today, it still is, putting MCN approximately 10 percent above the national average.

“Originally, I got a letter that I was accepted to MCN, but not until next year. After that I got letters from a whole bunch of other schools saying the same thing. Then one day while I was at work, Janeen called from the Office of Student Support. She said, ‘Hey, I know you are accepted for next year, but can you start in a month?’”

Holland dropped everything, packed her car, and camped her way across the country. A mere three weeks later, she started MCN’s Accelerated B.S.N. program.

Her first year was difficult. On top of the challenges presented by an accelerated program, she had been recently diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic pain condition affecting one of the nerves in the face. Right before the start of the semester, Holland’s doctors changed her medications.

“They put me on anti-seizure meds. At the time, I didn’t know anything about meds,” she said. “The side effects from this particular medication brought me dangerously close to failing all of my classes. I went to my patho instructor and basically said, ‘I don’t know what is going on. I know I am smarter than this.’”

Holland’s pathophysiology professor responded positively, supporting Holland while she got to the bottom of the problem and transitioned off of the medication. She went from almost failing out of nursing school to earning A’s and B’s. According to Holland, that “there-for-you” attitude was one embodied by all of her professors.

“My clinicals were amazing. Now, as a practicing nurse, I see so many students get dropped off with no clinical instructor involvement. I remember my first time in a hospital, I was the lucky student who got the first nurse. I was really excited about it.”

Holland laughs.Holland leans against a railing.

“The nurse abandoned me. Nurses are really busy. Sometimes other priorities have to take precedence, and students can get lost in the shuffle. It was a really hard thing, but my clinical instructor was always there. She stepped in to make sure we got answers to questions. And it was not just that one clinical instructor. All of my instructors supported us and made sure we got the experiences we needed. I do not see many schools doing that.”

Now, Holland is a passionate advocate for students. “I love taking students. A lot of nurses don’t like it, but taking students is one of my favorite things. I credit Mennonite for that.”

The passion for learning and teaching she acquired during her time at MCN ties into her favorite thing about travel nursing—the potential for learning and growth. “I have been to some really phenomenal hospitals. Every place you go does things a little differently, and I have been able to take the best practices from each hospital and bring them together with my own practice. When you spend your career at the same hospital, you do not see how other places do things. Ultimately, you don’t grow as much.”

Holland’s current role is a bit different from the normal travel nursing gig. Kalispell saw a need for a specialized pediatric oncology clinic in their area, and brought her on board to help build their program.

“Before, all the kids from this area were sent to big cities like Seattle for treatment. These are kids from rural Montana,” Holland said. “Sending them to big cities is overwhelming to them emotionally and overwhelming financially for their families.”

Holland knows that her travel nursing experiences prepared her for her current role. “For example, Children’s Colorado does this one thing that makes everything better. San Francisco does this other thing that’s really cool and helps kids adapt. I grabbed from and adapted things I learned in all of these different places, and used that knowledge to build Kalispell’s policy.”

When asked if there is anything she dislikes about the job, Holland laughs. “Packing. I hate packing.” And then, more seriously, “And saying goodbye. Here, I am the nurse. I have become very close with my patients. I do not just know the kids; I know their families. I know their cousins and the name of their dog. I know everything about them.”

Holland is quiet for a moment, and in her silence hangs the unspoken truth: Many of her kids do not make it.

Next, Holland is heading to a research hospital on the East Coast. She is excited, in part because her late grandmother was a nurse there, but mostly because the assignment is allowing her to follow one of her former patients. The patient—let’s call that child “A.”—has not had the best life, she explains.

“A. is the one who thinks my name is Batman,” Holland said, smiling.

A.’s family is in the picture, but on their own terms, not A.’s. When asked what that means and if it happens a lot, she answers thoughtfully: “Sometimes. Sometimes, kids do not take meds well. And these kids have to take their meds, so it can be extremely frustrating for already stressed-out parents. In other instances, parents have to work in order to keep their insurance, and so that limits the amount of time they can be in the hospital.”

Then, her tone brightens. “I don’t want this to seem like all kids get abandoned. Everyone wants to cry for my kids, but that is the exception, not the rule. Cancer is hard on the entire family, but most families get stronger from it. I work with amazing families who put the entire world aside for their kid. It is truly amazing what love can bring out in a child.”

Holland almost fostered A., but a pair of former colleagues beat her to it. They have been instrumental in helping A. catch up to developmental milestones. And while A. has responded to treatment, hospital staff has not been able to find a cure and A. keeps getting sick. The research hospital thinks it might be able to help.

“Being in a new city is overwhelming, and sometimes it is just nice to have a face you know. This hospital is giving A. a chance, so I am going there, and am going to be A.’s Batman.”

Holland explains that if she were not a travel nurse, she would not have that opportunity.

“These kids are superheroes. If I get to see A. reach this next birthday, that would be amazing. If I see A. go into remission and stay in remission—that’s the dream.”

*As of printing, A.’s scans and labs were clear. A. is growing tall and about to start school for the very first time. Holland believes A. is going to change the world someday. 

If you connected with A.’s story and want to help children struggling with similar health issues, Holland encourages you to donate blood regularly and become an organ donor.

This story was originally printed as part of MCN’s 2016-2017 Annual Report. To view the full report, click here. 


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