Meet "Little Debbie Sunshine Wagers"

In my work, some days I teach frightened 8-year-olds and their parents about this devastating new diagnosis called cancer. Some days I run around providing play opportunities for kids getting blood transfusions or chemo. Some days I go to their schools and teach their classmates about cancer so that they’re not afraid. Some days I kick kids’ butts in a game of UNO or let them laugh at me while I try to drive Mario’s stupid cart. And some days, I hold the hand of parent whose been told we don’t have any other treatment options and their child’s cancer is not curative. I also get to work with children of adult patients, helping them understand diagnoses and sometimes helping them say goodbye to family members that are taken too soon. We all use different skills and tools in our jobs in health care. In my job, play is my tool. In other professions, you use things like medications, medical imaging, physical activity to build and regain skills, but the one thing that we all use in the care of our patients—our common tool—is compassion.

This is an excerpt from the student address Debra Wagers, M.H.A., B.S., CCLS, delivered at the spring 2016 Clarkson College commencement ceremony on April 30. The day, as many remember it, started off grim weather-wise. By the time the newly-minted Master of Science in Health Care Administration graduate exited the stage, she had completely lit up the room, along with the hearts of everyone in it.

Wagers has worked as a certified child life specialist (CCLS) in Omaha for nearly 25 years, starting off her career at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and spending the last 14 years at Nebraska Medicine. She describes her work as “using expertise in child development to help teach children, on a developmentally appropriate level, about what is happening and what they will encounter.” As Wagers stated in her address, some days are full of heartache; others great joy. But every day is unbroken with compassion.

“My experience in all my years is that people who choose to go into health care are already wired for compassion—that’s why we choose what we choose,” said Wagers in her graduation address. “We want to help and serve others. Clarkson College has helped develop those innate cravings that we all have.”

Before sharing several heart-gripping stories about the young children and patients she’s helped over the years, Wagers first captured the audience’s attention with her own life story. A small town Iowa girl, she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Child Life and had her entire future mapped out. She’d be married to the man of her dreams by age 26 and have a beautiful home, a great job, two children (specifically a boy and a girl) and live happily ever after. “We all know that life doesn’t always go the way we planned,” she said poignantly into the microphone to her fellow graduates. “There are twists and turns, peaks and valleys and chuck holes that swallow us whole and we wonder if we’re ever going to be able to get out.” For Wagers, that meant getting married twice, divorced twice and being a single mom for most of her son’s life.” Some would consider that a chuck hole; I choose to consider it all a blessing, for each and every thing that we go through makes us who we are.”

Sparse job openings for child life specialists also meant it would take Wagers five years to “find her way” after graduating from college. She started off as a bookkeeper for a neurosurgeon in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Eighteen months later, when the surgeon retired, the job market was still bleak. She ended up taking a job selling cars, which even she knew wasn’t the most common track for a 20-something female and hopeful clinician. “I'm kind of an ‘atypical’ gal—like to march to the beat of my own drum,” she says with candor. After about a year-and-a-half of selling cars, she transitioned into a cashier position at the same car dealership. When she got laid off two years later, her streak of incidental jobs came to an end. She secured a temporary child life specialist position for three months and then worked pro re nata through the summer. In August 1991, Children’s Hospital & Medical Center hired her on full-time—and she would learn a lot over the next 24 years.

Health care is not for the faint of heart,” she says very matter-of-factly. It can bring you incredible joy and unbelievable sadness. With poise, she looked across the room of future health care providers seated before her and told the story of “Little Debbie Sunshine”:

About four-and-a-half years ago, I had a patient who nicknamed me “Little Debbie Sunshine.” I’ll spare you the details of where that name came from, but trust me, it’s a good one. Last year, I received an invitation to his graduation after he’d finished two-and-a-half years of treatment for lymphoma. The invitation was addressed to “Little Debbie Sunshine Wagers,” which made me smile and also brought tears to my eyes. I started to think about the relationship I’d built with this patient and his family over the past three years and what a blessing it has been.

She then recited a portion of a blog post she wrote, inspired by her ““Little Debbie Sunshine Wagers” invitation:

From the very beginning of their diagnosis, on what is probably their darkest day, families invite us into their lives. While I’m sure they all feel blessed to have such an amazing medical team, I believe with all my heart, that we are the ones who are blessed by each and every child and family member we meet. They all bring their own unique and special gifts. We really do learn something from all of them. These lessons help us provide even better care to the next child and family. We have no idea what it’s like to “walk a mile in their shoes,” but what we can do, is help them tie their shoe laces, point them in the right direction, maybe tell them where those long dry spells are going to be and even offer them a drink of water along the way. We get to watch them find that silver lining, even when the outcomes aren’t what we all wanted, but we get to watch them discover that special gift—the gift of time with their children. Kids always talk about how much they learned about themselves along the way and how thankful they are to have such an amazing and supportive family and community. We hear parents talk about how much they learned about their child, themselves, their other children, their family and their community. We get to be first-hand witnesses to the love, the dedication, the sacrifices and strength of families. We can walk alongside families, but they are the ones that have to walk that journey. They inspire me. Daily.

A few years ago, Wagers says she took some of that inspiration and decided to “feed her soul” by applying to graduate school. “I always knew I wanted to get my master’s, although I wasn’t sure what kind of degree,” she says. “So, I waited; then life happened, and it just continued to happen.” Then, one day about five years ago, the then 47-year-old decided it was time. “I talked to my son, who was just starting high school, and without hesitation he said, ‘Go for it, mom,’ and I could actually tell he was excited for me.”

Wagers chose to pursue a Master’s degree in Health Care Administration as a means to not only position herself for advanced opportunities in the child life field, but also for other realms of health care, if ever she decides to venture outward. She spoke with her supervisor and a colleague who earned their master’s degrees at Clarkson College, and both recommended the institution. “I did my research and decided it would be a good fit for me,” says Wagers. “I was right.”

“The funny thing is, as I grew closer to completing my degree, I really struggled with the thought of giving up my clinical work with my pediatric patients,” says Wagers. “While I know I'd be able to continue to make a huge impact as a manager, it would likely mean not having the day-to-day interactions and relationships with the kids and families, [and] I don't know if I can live without that.”

Then, she took a step back and acknowledged everything she has gained in the last four years. “I always knew there was a lot of potential for tremendous growth of child life services at Nebraska Medicine, and had a general idea of what kinds of things we'd need to do to help justify that, but really didn't have a good understanding of how to actually develop a plan and work to implement it,” she says. “I feel that I have that now; not that I know everything, but I have some direction.”

Debbie Wagers and son at graduation
Debra Wagers, with her son at graduation.

Whichever direction Wagers takes, she will carry with her the essential tool, the heart, the intrinsic symbol of what she believes drives quality health care. She will carry her compassion. Wagers reiterated to her fellow graduates and guests the importance of this virtue:

We are all part of a team to provide excellent care, no matter where we practice or what our name badge says. It doesn’t matter if it says, M.D., R.N., respiratory therapy, child life, P.T., O.T., P.T.A., chaplain, patient care tech, dietitian, housekeeping, facilities, food services, radiology, social work—we are all part of a team whose job is to provide the best possible care. Providing the best possible care means keeping the patient and their family at the center. We always need to remember that everyone has a story, just as we do.

As for the story of “Little Debbie Sunshine Wagers,” one can be certain there is yet much more to be written.