Since 1995, Aflac employees, agents, and The Aflac Foundation, Inc. have donated more than $140+ million to childhood cancer treatment and research. Much of Aflac’s support comes from its independent sales agents, who contribute donations from their monthly commission checks, as well as Aflac employees who contribute each month through payroll deduction.
Caring for more than 2,500 children with cancer and more than 4,900 children with sickle cell disease, hemophilia and other blood disorders.
In September 1994, at the age of 17 months old, Amelia Ballard spiked a 106-degree fever after running several weeks of fluctuating temps. Amelia’s pediatrician immediately referred her to Scottish Rite Children’s Hospital, where she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia. Amelia began chemotherapy treatments immediately, which lasted 27 months; however, four months post-treatment, Amelia relapsed.
The cancer during Amelia’s relapse was extremely aggressive and required aggressive treatment. Her relapse presented not only in her bone marrow but also in her central nervous system. Amelia’s course of treatment required intense chemotherapy, cranial radiation, total body radiation and a bone marrow transplant. Amelia’s parents were told that her chances of survival depended on a couple of things: her body’s ability to tolerate the treatment and a bone marrow donor. Amelia’s mother was pregnant at the time so cord blood donation was discussed, but at the time it was a relatively new technique with few statistics.
Amelia’s immediate family members were tested and her older brother, Robbie, was a perfect match. Amelia began intense treatment to prepare her body to receive her brother’s stem cells. Amelia was three years old, her mother was pregnant, and her dad was running a small business in Macon, Georgia, while taking care of Robbie, who was in Kindergarten. It was certainly a testing time for the Ballard Family!
The days leading up to June 17, 1997 were a whirlwind. Amelia’s little sister, Allie, was delivered by C-section, Robbie was admitted for his bone marrow harvest and Allie received his generous gift of stem cells. The days, weeks and months following the transplant were filled with uncertainty, graft vs. host disease and a multitude of complications, but in the end the transplant was successful. Once Amelia surpassed the 5-year remission mark, she entered the Survivor Program at the Aflac Cancer Center under the care of Lillian Meacham, M.D. Dr. Meacham helped Amelia understand her past medical history and helped transition her from pediatric to adult healthcare.
It has been a long journey, but Amelia is thankful to be back at the place where it all began. She graduated from nursing school in May and returned to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as Amelia Ballard, RN, BSN.
When my first-grade teacher, Ms. Whiteside, had us write about what we wanted to do when we grew up, I did so without hesitation. We read our papers aloud and most of the kids decided they were going to be “famous.” I proudly told everyone that I was “going to be a nurse.”
My mom has been a Hematology & Oncology nurse at Scottish Rite for more than 35 years. Inspired by her willingness to help children who were fighting to overcome unimaginable odds, I followed her example.
In nursing school, there were many times when I wondered if I could do it. But upon my graduation, my mother presented me with the paper she’d saved from Ms. Whiteside’s class, and I was overwhelmed with gratitude—and affirmation.
As a Hematology & Oncology Nurse at Aflac Cancer Center, I’m inspired by the children and my colleagues every day. In between labs and planning, we have the privilege of connecting with these brave children, who, even in their youth, have already figured out what’s important in life. I’m constantly amazed at the ways they support one another and the strength of their families.
Following eight years in the field, the talent among my coworkers has had a profound effect on my life. I’ve learned that to be a good nurse, you need genuine compassion, courage to do the right thing, a strong work ethic, acceptance that you’re never going to know it all, and most of all, a sense of humor. These traits can transcend the robotic academia and help you and those you care for get through dark, seemingly impossible times.
I still carry my notes from nursing school as a reminder of how little we know when we start something new, how far we can go in an environment that helps us thrive, and how much we have to learn. I’m fortunate to have learned so much from so many inspiring people at Children’s.
Like everyone I work with, I want to make a difference for our children. Sometimes, I’ll sing to the kids (albeit not too well) or I’ll pull out a “Frozen” video on my phone to lift their spirits. I take time to really connect with our teenagers and show them I care. And while I may not have perfect pitch, as long as we keep encouraging these kids to give it their all, in their eyes, we’re all rockstars.
Written on behalf of Jackie Cirilli
Jackie Cirilli is the 2015 recipient of the prestigious Laura Snitzer-Boozer award honoring nurses who’ve demonstrated professional excellence and leadership in Oncology/Hematology care at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.