Rose McKeever is a licensed practical nurse and an expert hugger, party-thrower and hand-holder. One of six kids, she grew up on a farm, where she “prayed on the animals” a lot. In seventh grade, she helped out in gym class once, remaining calm while caring for a sick classmate with a gushing nosebleed.
“I got home that night and told my mom what happened,” recalls McKeever, who’s been an oncology nurse at DeKalb Medical Center in Decatur, Ga., for 35 years, “and she said, ‘You and the Lord might have some business together.’ ”
Now a breast nurse navigator in the hospital’s cancer center, McKeever has hosted winter pick-me-up tea parties for breast cancer survivors, held indoor picnics for patients who longed for some summer revelry, and arranged happy reunions between dying patients and their estranged family members. In November, the Georgia Hospital Association recognized her with its Hospital Hero Award for her work with children of cancer patients.
In 1993, McKeever founded the Treehouse Gang, a support group to help kids sort out their anger, bewilderment and grief, and to understand what their ill parents were going through.
Weakened from the disease and the chemotherapy, the women in one of her breast cancer support groups were having trouble handling their children. “[The kids] were making bad grades, they were being disrespectful, they were picky and cranky and irritable, and the moms didn’t know how to handle them. Someone in the group said, ‘They need a place to go and learn what’s going on.’ ”
McKeever approached Betty Castellani, the cancer center’s founding director, about starting a kids’ group. “She always challenged us to keep the soul in medicine,” McKeever says of Castellani, who died of cancer in January 2014. “To just get in there and try to make a difference. She was real big on us injecting and instilling and having an atmosphere of hope.”
At first, Castellani balked. “She laughed — she had this little contagious laugh — and she said, ‘You’re already a groupie. You’re doing the family group and the breast group. You can’t do another group.’” But when no one else stepped up, Castellani told McKeever to go ahead, and asked one of the chaplains to help.
McKeever had no road map for starting such a group. But an oncology conference in Orlando later that year brought some much-needed guidance. “They had one session on kids and cancer — I went there and started writing down everything this woman was saying as best I could,” she says. “And I was sitting there crying like a baby because it was the information we needed.”
She spun off the name “Treehouse Gang” from the cancer center’s emblem, the tree of life.
In the first session, “What’s going on in my family?,” the children create a family portrait and share stories about their home life. “It’s a way of getting acquainted and understanding they’re all there for the same purpose,” McKeever says.
In Session 2, they learn about treatment, including chemotherapy and its side effects. “It helps them to understand why Momma gets to eat Jell-O and Popsicles and they have to eat their green beans,” she explains. They visit the lab to see blood cells under a microscope and tour the radiation and radiology departments.
During the third week, “we really zero in on emotions,” says McKeever. “ ‘What’s going on with me.’ Kids are very trusting and inquisitive and they want to learn so much. You put them at that table with popcorn and some juice boxes, and they’re not like their parents who take weeks to be able to trust and open up. They’ll tell you how they feel very quickly.”
Jim Forstner, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at DeKalb, says McKeever “engenders trust from the moment she walks into the room. She’s able to be compassionate and empathize with these kids who are going through this. She lives it and breathes it.”
Initially, McKeever thought it might be best to divide up the Treehouse Gang by age, “but it’s worked out that we’ve had them together because the older ones just seem very protective and caring of the younger ones,” she says. “They step up. It’s like a little family. It’s touching to see how they take care of each other.”