Kristin Young knew her son was going to die.
It was the fall of 2015, and Colby, who was only 15, had just relapsed, after a yearlong battle with a rare and aggressive brain tumor called a pineoblastoma. He was being treated at the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital. Young had always known that if this cancer came back, it would likely be fatal.
After hearing the news of the relapse while Colby was getting updated scans, Young and her husband sat outside. They found a wooden bench, in front of the circular driveway at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte across the street from the clinic.
A short while later, Gretchen Jensen –- the front desk supervisor at the Affiliate Clinic – walked up and sat down beside them. “This sucks,” she said.
Then, the three just sat quietly.
Jensen has been at the facility for 15 years. She speaks daily with parents who cannot imagine how they’ll survive watching their child fight cancer. “You can,” she tells them, “and you will.”
And Jensen knows, because she has been there herself.
A bolt from nowhere
On Sept. 10, 2006, Jensen received a phone call while she was at home in Buffalo, New York. Her son Brett, 21, who had recently moved to Charlotte to pursue a golf career, had collapsed while shopping at at Harris Teeter. That night, he was taken to Presbyterian Hospital Matthews and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
Two hours later, Jensen was on a plane.
Brett was treated at the Blume Clinic (which would later become the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic) by Dr. Paulette Bryant, and Dr. Mark Mogul. Jensen was no stranger to caring for a sick relative — both of her parents battled cancer before Brett’s diagnosis. But nothing could have prepared her for this.
“You’re sort of naive, thinking that we’re going to be here and then we’re going to go home,” she said. Brett’s case was not going to follow a simple path.
The first goal was to get him into remission. He needed a bone marrow transplant. But without remission, there’s no transplant, she said. Brett had his first transplant in mid-January.
Caring for a child with cancer is a full-time job. Every day was different. There were good days, bad days and dramatic days, she said. She was on a rollercoaster and there was no getting off. “You have to have hope, and you have to stay positive,” she said. But time was running out.
The transplant would take place at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. Jensen and her husband, Bruce, stayed at the Ronald McDonald House for those three months. Even though they are both Duke fans, they decided to take in a Tar Heels basketball game.
“It was just to walk away and take a break,” she said. “You had to remember that sometimes you needed to take care of yourself so you could take care of your son.” She wore a lime green Abercrombie sweatshirt — and immediately felt out of place.
‘You’ll do anything’
Both Jensen and her husband were half-matches for the bone marrow. Bruce was the first person to donate bone marrow. It failed, so Jensen was up next. She was hooked up to the machine for six or seven hours. It circulated through all of her blood, removing the stem cells that would later be infused into her son’s blood. She started to feel sick. But she didn’t let herself give in.
“I’m like, ‘Gretchen, get a grip,’” she said. “‘Your kid’s fighting cancer, and here you’re being a wimp.’”
Brett’s body accepted the transfusion, but because of a preexisting infection, all of Jensen’s cells immediately went to Brett’s lungs to fight the infection. That night, Brett had to be put a ventilator, or breathing machine. For the next two months or so, Brett fought as hard as he could.
As March approached, however, his organs had almost completely failed. Jensen found herself at the point where she had to remember the purpose of medical intervention — it should always be for the person’s benefit.
As a parent, that line was difficult to draw. “You’ll do anything to keep your kid with you.”
But she and Bruce knew it was time to stop fighting. “You have to love them enough to let them go,” Gretchen said.
On March 4, 2007, Brett died.
A return to Charlotte
Back home in Buffalo and still grieving the loss of Brett, Jensen returned to her work at a radiology center where she scheduled patients and helped run the office.
One day, she got another phone call that would change her life again. Once more, it came from Charlotte.
Over the course of Brett’s treatment, Jensen had grown close with Mogul and Bryant, Brett’s doctors. She was always making everyone else around her smile or laugh, even in the face of Brett’s dire condition. Bryant describes Jensen and Bruce as simply “remarkable.”
“And remarkable people, you just want to be in their presence, even if through a circumstance that’s very difficult," Bryant said.
When a job opened up as a front desk supervisor, Mogul thought of Jensen, and that ability to make people feel seen, heard and loved. So, he reached out to see if she would be interested in applying.
Jensen would be responsible for checking patients in, scheduling scans and coordinating with other departments, among dozens of other duties. But, most importantly, she would be the first face that new, frightened families would see when they walked into St. Jude.
Because of Jensen’s passion for health care, and her personal experience and ties to the Blume Clinic, she decided to interview.
“You want to curl up in a ball and you don’t want to do anything,” she said, “so you have to make yourself do some things that you don’t want to do.” She got the job.
Four months after Brett’s death, in July 2007, she and Bruce moved to Charlotte and she started at the Blume Clinic. (In 2015, the Blume Clinic became the St. Jude Affiliate Clinic at Novant Health, bringing the research and expertise of internationally recognized St. Jude to North Carolina.)
Becoming part of the team
Jensen quickly became part of the clinic family. Shortly after starting, she met a young man at Hemby Children’s Hospital who had sickle cell disease. Unlike other rooms where family had brought in decorations, books and games, there was nothing special to keep him company and help pass the time.
“He was just sitting in a room with nothing,” she said.
For patients like him, and to honor the memory of her son, Jensen created Brett’s Cart. Specifically tailored for young adults in the cancer wing of Hemby, Brett’s Cart contains a television, gaming consoles, movies, books and crafts.
That patient checked out Brett’s Cart often. He later approached Jensen and thanked her. That cart is what got him through his treatment, he told her.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have anybody,” she said. “So, if something small like that can help somebody else, I think that speaks volumes.”
What makes her special is her instinct and ability to put the child first, Bryant said. Jensen also has a knack for nudging and challenging physicians who get stuck in “doctor world,” to think about patients in a different way as treatment options come along. “She became the advocate for every single teenage patient we had,” Bryant explained.
She’s also there to encourage each child to continue fighting, even during the hardest challenges.
But Jensen also works to help the parents fighting alongside each child. When it came to 15-year-old Colby Young, the son of the parents she sat with outside the hospital, she was there.
Jensen’s presence wasn’t just one of comfort, Kristin Young said. “The relapse felt even worse. It felt like you just got kicked in your stomach after fighting so hard,” she said. “Gretchen understood that.” And it helped.
Jensen started a bereavement group, known as “Gretchen’s Group,” for parents who had lost their children. When it’s helpful, Jensen will tell her own story to some of the families in the clinic. “I think it helps for them to see that I’m still here,” she said. “And I can have a good day.”
Sometimes she offers advice as a mom who has been there. Sometimes she just listens.
“And a lot of times, she can break through in places that we cannot,” Bryant said. “Even something as simple as setting up a room to talk to a parent about something that’s difficult instead of doing it in a clinic space … Just very little things that you wouldn’t think about, because you or I may not have walked that path. But she has.”
For Jensen, she’s just doing what comes naturally.
“If it would give them five minutes to just be normal, and laugh, and take their minds off, well, then that’s just what you do,” she said.
More change coming
After taking care of others for most of her life, Jensen hopes to start devoting a little more time to herself. She turns 65 in February, and soon after that, she plans to retire.
She and Bruce will take time doing the things they love, like traveling, especially to Buffalo Bills games and other sporting events. Gretchen loves to bike, while Bruce loves to golf, just like Brett did.
Now, she said, she might even try to learn how to play.