Long needles. Bright lights. Unfamiliar faces. Kaitlyn Martin of Fresno knows that sometimes the realities of a hospital can be scary, especially for a child. She clearly recalls feeling fearful when she herself underwent major surgery at 5 years old to repair a congenital heart defect.
“I remember getting X-rays and tests at the hospital and my mom couldn’t go in with me,” said Kaitlyn, who underwent the procedure in Los Angeles where she and her family then lived. “I didn’t trust people because I didn’t know them. I started to cry.”
The surgery was successful and soon Kaitlyn’s family moved to the Central Valley where she has received follow-up pediatric care at Children’s Hospital’s Willson Heart Center for the past dozen years. Now an active high school senior with a clean bill of health, her experience inspired her to volunteer at Children’s to help other ill kids.
“The doctors and nurses at Children’s are so nice,” said Kaitlyn. “They never treated me different than other kids and always told me there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do or accomplish. I’ve been blessed with good health and I want to bless others with that health. Surgery and being sick was the scariest thing in my life, and I want to reduce other children’s fear.”
Often referred to as a “model volunteer,” Kaitlyn’s extraordinary efforts were acknowledged when HandsOn Central California recently awarded her their Hands Across the Valley “Outstanding Youth Volunteer of the Year” award. In honor of National Volunteer Week, the award is one of seven that HandsOn presents at their annual Volunteer of the Year Luncheon in recognition and celebration of our community’s volunteers.
“I feel very privileged to receive this award,” said Kaitlyn. “I love Children’s and I love volunteering, and getting recognized for that is amazing. I know this world isn’t just about me – it’s about using our strengths to help others.”
“The best thing in the world to do”
Every Saturday, Kaitlyn puts a smile on others’ faces at Children’s. Contributing more than 450 hours to date, she may be painting with patients in the Child Life playroom one minute, and the next minute providing encouraging words to a cancer inpatient or helping a child focus on something fun while getting blood drawn.
“She has donated more than twice the number of hours a volunteer would have typically completed in the two years she has been volunteering with us,” said Erin Collins, Children’s manager of volunteer services, who nominated Kaitlyn for the award. “Kaitlyn demonstrates a great deal of compassion for our patients and families. She is an incredible person.”
“Everyone loves Kaitlyn,” said Amy Russo, Child Life assistant. “She’s always so excited and eager and the kids seek her out. We look forward to seeing her here because we know she’s going to make a difference in a child’s life that day.”
For Kaitlyn, volunteering at Children’s is like “going to Disneyland,” and unlike most youth her age, she can’t imagine spending her weekend any other way.
“It’s the best thing in the world to do,” she said. “I get to play with kids who see the world as always new and exciting. I hold them, laugh with them, help them feel better. Sometimes I’ll even get to see them take their first steps, or breathe again on their own. It reminds me how wonderful this place is, and I have the opportunity to add to that wonderfulness.”
Kaitlyn’s own heart defect didn’t get noticed until she was 3, when her pediatrician detected a heart murmur. “I’m lucky it got caught in time,” she said. “It could have been a very different outcome. I feel there’s a reason for everything and I want to give back.”
Kaitlyn’s parents, Susie and Gerald Martin, couldn’t be more proud of their daughter. “She’s a fighter herself – after surgery she wanted to show everyone her ‘battle scar,’” said Susie, referring to the four-inch incision on her sternum. “It’s ironic that Kaitlyn has a heart problem because she has the biggest heart of anyone I know, so much compassion. She shows compassion even when things aren’t going well for her. It takes a very special person to do that.”
Kailtyn will soon demonstrate her compassion another way – by cutting her long, beautiful blond hair. On May 21, she, along with her dad, will shave her head for the St. Baldrick’s event hosted by Children’s Hospital and California State University, Fresno, at Children’s to raise funds for childhood cancer research and increase awareness of the disease.
“I’m so excited to do this,” said Kaitlyn, pointing to how long her hair is since at the moment it’s pulled up following dance class. “These kids are fighting for their lives, undergoing treatments, with nausea, no appetite – and then they lose their hair, their dignity, on top of it. I want to show support for people who don’t have a choice to lose their hair, to let them know they’re not alone.”
Largely because of her personal experience and volunteerism at Children’s, Kaitlyn looks forward to going to college and becoming a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse: “It’s an indescribable feeling to hold a precious little baby. They’re so pure, and they don’t give up.”
But for as much as Kaitlyn has given at Children’s, she feels she has received even more in return. “I’ve learned so much here and from the volunteer staff,” she said. “To be open to everyone and love every kid as they are – no questions asked – and to have a lot of energy!”
While Kaitlyn has worked with infants elsewhere in the Hospital, she hasn’t been able to help yet in the NICU because volunteers must be at least 18. So when Kaitlyn turns that magic number on her birthday this July, volunteer staff is going to personally accompany her there to care for the babies. “I couldn’t ask for a better gift,” said Kaitlyn excitedly. “I can’t wait.”