Some of Kurt MacDonald’s earliest memories are from Memorial Sloan Kettering. He remembers, at the age of 4, waiting with great anticipation for a pair of elevator doors to open before sprinting down the fifth-floor hallway of Memorial Hospital. As he often did on his follow-up visits, he zipped past hand-painted pictures of flowers, pets, and a snowman to say a quick hello to Ivy, one of his favorite nursing assistants at MSK Kids.
With his parents trailing behind, Kurt would then run down the hall to the office of Norma Wollner, the doctor he affectionately referred to as “Nanny” Wollner.
“She always had white Tic Tacs. They were her little treat for me until I was 18,” Kurt says. “When I grew up and we would meet for lunch, I would give her a pack of Tic Tacs as payment for all the ones she gave me. She and others at MSK have been like a family to me from an early age.”
Many former patients remember their first appointment. But Kurt needed his parents’ help to piece together his care at MSK. After all, he was only eight weeks old when Michael La Quaglia, the Joseph H. Burchenal Chair in Pediatrics, surgically removed a cancerous germ cell tumor (GCT) from his abdomen.
“I only have positive memories of MSK,” Kurt says. “My parents have both good and bad memories due to the traumatizing experience that comes with having a child diagnosed with cancer. But the people they met along the way were truly amazing. My parents will never forget them.”
Because of MSK’s impact on him and his family, Kurt chose to pursue a career in pediatric nursing on the same unit where he was treated 24 years ago. Now, he works the nightshift on M9, the home of MSK Kids, alongside many of the nurses who cared for him when he was younger.
Kurt celebrates his two-year anniversary as a nurse in September, which also happens to be Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
A Parent’s Nightmare
One night shortly after Kurt was born, his mom Laurine attended a back-to-school night while his dad Mickey took care of the kids. Kurt cried uncontrollably and when Mickey investigated, he noticed that Kurt’s belly felt unusually firm. The next day, Kurt’s belly button was protruding from his stomach and his abdomen was swollen. His parents took him to their pediatrician in Staten Island, who found a grapefruit-sized mass inside Kurt’s belly.
Although they didn’t know if the mass was cancerous, Kurt’s parents decided to get an emergency consultation at MSK, a hospital they knew excelled in pediatric care. Kurt’s parents were referred to former Deputy Physician-in-Chief Thomas Fahey, Jr. Dr. Fahey saw the family on a Sunday, and when he saw the seriousness of the situation, he called in help from Dr. La Quaglia.
“Dr. La Quaglia left his daughter’s soccer game in New Jersey to come see us,” Laurine says.
“He was able to give us comfort, trust, and hope, and mitigate our deepest fears from the moment we met,” adds Mickey. “He was one of the most compassionate, gifted humans ever created. Dr. La Quaglia was sent from God to us.”
Two days later, Dr. La Quaglia performed surgery to remove Kurt’s tumor. Dr. La Quaglia discovered it was a malignant GCT, a rare cancer that begins in an embryo’s germ cells and can spread to the head, chest, abdomen, lungs, liver, or central nervous system.
At just two months old, Kurt was placed into a medically induced coma and transported to another hospital. MSK did not have a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at that time.
“We were devastated,” Mickey says. MSK’s social work team encouraged him and Laurine to tell Kurt’s brothers, who were being cared for by their grandmother in New Jersey, that Kurt had cancer. “We thought, ‘Will we lose our beautiful newborn child? What do we tell the boys? How will we get through this? Why Kurt?’”
Dr. La Quaglia recommended that Kurt have chemotherapy to shrink the remaining GCT before performing a second surgery to take the rest of it out. However, members of MSK’s tumor board – a group of doctors and other experts who meet to discuss challenging medical cases — were unsure if Kurt would survive the chemotherapy. Kurt was very young, there was not a lot of research available on the impact of chemotherapy on babies, and the survival rates of children with malignant GCTs were low at the time. That’s when “Nanny” Wollner stepped in.
“Dr. Wollner spoke up and took full responsibility of my case,” says Kurt, who learned the story later. “She believed I could withstand the high doses of chemotherapy when other medical professionals did not.”
Under Dr. Wollner’s care, Kurt’s tumor shrank and four months after his first surgery, he was able to have his second surgery with Dr. La Quaglia. Mickey and Laurine say they will always remember the image of Dr. La Quaglia cradling Kurt in his arms after surgery. The surgery was a success, and by the time he was two years old, Kurt was cancer free.
Kurt remained Dr. Wollner’s patient until she retired in 1999. They stayed in touch until she passed away in 2017.
“She was like a grandmother to me,” Kurt says. “Instead of Dr. Wollner, she asked me to call her ‘Nanny’ because when I was young, she didn’t have any grandchildren. As I grew older I was able to cherish the advice she gave me throughout my childhood each time we met. I owe everything to Nanny Wollner and Dr. La Quaglia.”
The Towheaded Toddler, All Grown Up
In between regular follow-ups at MSK, Kurt excelled in school and volleyball. In 2013, he was named the Star Ledger Center Jersey Player of the Year and the Home News Player of the Year, and he won First Team All-State in men’s volleyball. His success as a volleyball player continued at Ramapo College, where he majored in nursing.
For every award he received and every nursing class he aced, Kurt wanted to share his accolades with Dr. La Quaglia to let him know he was happy, healthy, and successful.
“My whole childhood, I never remembered meeting Dr. La Quaglia,” Kurt explains. Until he was 18, Kurt had only heard of Dr. La Quaglia from his parents, who sent thank-you cards and fruit baskets to him every Christmas. “I remember thinking, ‘I wish I could share my accomplishments with Dr. La Quaglia to show him how much he’s done for me and my parents.’”
The first time Kurt met Dr. La Quaglia was during a chance encounter at MSK Kids, where Kurt was interning in MSK’s Clinical Assistants Program (CAP) during his senior year of college.
“When I saw him, my heart started pounding. I was starstruck,” says Kurt. He approached Dr. La Quaglia to tell him who he was. “Before I could say my name, he reached out and gave me a big hug. ‘I know who you are!’ he said.”
“You can’t miss him — he and his father and brothers are all towheads!” Dr. La Quaglia says with a laugh. “Seeing him grown up is amazing. Now he’s taller than I am. We run into each other from time to time. He’s a wonderful kid and his parents are wonderful.”
A Return to MSK
Many of Kurt’s fondest memories of MSK include his interactions with the nurses he met during his follow-ups. Their friendly attitudes and the impact they had on their patients inspired Kurt to become a pediatric nurse. Kurt’s goal was to return to MSK as a nurse and provide the same care he received as a child, but pediatric nursing is a highly competitive field.
“Kurt was only two months old when I met him,” says Roseann Tucci, a nurse practitioner who cared for Kurt alongside Dr. Wollner. “He was a curious child and teen who always asked questions about blood counts, medical equipment, and what I was listening to with my stethoscope.”
Ms. Tucci encouraged him to apply to MSK’s CAP internship, where he worked on the pediatric inpatient unit and was given the opportunity to shadow Dr. La Quaglia during an operation. She also encouraged him to apply for a nursing position. In 2017, he passed his nursing boards and accepted a position at MSK Kids.
At MSK Kids, Kurt does not often mention his experience as a patient. Patients and their families have their own journeys through cancer treatment, he says. However, when he sees parents who are having a rough time, he will share his story and reassure them that MSK Kids provides high-quality care.
“I know what I’ve overcome and how lucky I am to be here,” he says. “Coming to work every day to see these young, strong kids battle cancer, day in and day out, gives you a bigger appreciation for life itself.”