LAKE NONA--Gliding quickly down a bright hallway despite a crouched position, Julie Laybourne Swee catches up to squirmy 7-year-old "Pom-Pom" Palmer. The young girl feigns surprise as Swee grabs her around the waist from behind. Both dissolve into giggles and hugs.
"I brought you something special," Swee sings, presenting Palmer with a pink-and-white baseball T-shirt emblazoned in black graphics: "No hair. Don't care!" Gleefully yanking it over her head, Palmer announces it's a perfect fit. Her blue eyes sparkle as the two rub noses, while a grateful mother looks on.
"Julie knows just what I like!" Palmer tells her mom. "That's because we have lots in common." She rattles off: "Both of us have blonde hair. Both of us have birthdays in May." Pause for effect. "And we both have the same middle name - Lynn and Lynn." She nods triumphantly. A moment later in a burst of energy, Palmer jumps up, ready for a round of hide-and-seek.
"Julie was one of the first nurses we met, and immediately she and Palmer just bonded," said Kathryn Vorkapich, Palmer's mom. Palmer was admitted to Nemours Children's Hospital before the 2015 holiday season, and discharged right after Easter. "Julie steps in and makes sure that Palmer's doing everything she needs to do medically, and that her time here is special, and she's still having fun being a kid."
The Society of Pediatric Nurses (SPN) recently honored Swee, 29, a registered nurse specializing in cancer and blood disorders at Nemours, with the national organization's prestigious "Excellence in Clinical Practice" award, given annually to a staff nurse who makes a significant contribution to the care of children and families through professional clinical performance.
The news delighted Dana Nicholson Bledsoe, president of Nemours Children's Hospital, who pointed out that "everyone at Nemours is dedicated to delivering the very best of care to our patients and families. Julie's honor is confirmation that we're fulfilling that promise."
"We were so excited to find out that she won the award," said Vorkapich. "She really deserves it. She's gone above and beyond as a nurse and a friend."
The honor seems fitting for Swee, who focused on pediatric cancer and blood disorders soon after a friend's son was diagnosed with cancer. "I wanted to understand what her son was going through," Swee said. "That just kind of threw me into oncology."
Perhaps surprisingly as a child, the board game Operation terrified her. "When the little metal thing touched the side and made that buzzing noise, it scared me," she recalled, with a laugh. As a high schooler, Swee worked in a local nursing home, where the "forgotten people," as she calls them, would share tales of their decades of worldly adventures. As they spoke of those memories, their eyes brightened, grins appeared, and heads nodded. "Oh, yeah," they might say in unison, knocking canes together. It was their version of a high five.
The experience left Swee quite certain of two things: She wanted to travel and help those less fortunate, a bonus to combine them. "I enjoyed being a light in their life," said Swee, tilting her head with a smile. After initially mulling a career in geriatrics, she chose pediatrics. "The youngest and oldest of patients seem more appreciative of anything you can do for them to make them feel better or for a pocket of time, help them forget about feeling bad," she said.
After specializing in adult critical care at Liberty University in Virginia, the Vermont native's first post-graduate job brought her to the deep, steamy South. Her grandparents in Orlando had suddenly became quite ill. Placing them in a nursing home wasn't an option for Swee, whose dad has muscular dystrophy. "I'd always said I'd rather care for them," she said.
When she was able to job-hunt, Swee couldn't find a job in her field. "I just landed in pediatrics," she said. "I love it so much; it's probably what I'll do for the rest of my career."
Swee was drawn to Nemours' 10 Standards of Behavior - being in the moment, having courageous conversations, and choosing curiosity over judgment, for example - and was glad that Nemours leaders encourage out-of-the-box tools to keep pediatric patients happy during the toughest of times. "I've found in Nemours so much support - my manager, my director and upper leadership," she said.
Swee, who celebrated a one-year wedding anniversary in July, will soon add master's degree to her resume. A Sunday school teacher at New City Orlando, she's passionate about patient education at the bedside that she emphasizes "can prevent so many issues."
The downside of working with pediatric patients - dealing with death - never gets easier, noted Swee. "It's a struggle. I don't have children, so I can only imagine the worst situation somebody could face. I love going into work and seeing these kids. They're going through the worst of times, so when they're feeling better, they're running up and down the halls, smiling and laughing and wanting to play with you. That's the biggest blessing."