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The thought of working in the health care field never entered her mind.

Shannon Elfers certainly never thought about a career in nursing. It was a job that called for dirty work, cleaning up after sick people.

It wasn’t until she was a senior in high school and in treatment for cancer osteosarcoma that she realized that nurses contributed so much more to a patient’s recovery than just taking temperatures or doling out medicine.

“[Nursing] is much more about educating patients,” said Elfers, 23, a nursing student at the College of Southern Maryland. “You’re teaching people how to stay healthy; I never realized how much you’re just teaching and being there for [patients] when they’re sick and in a time of need.”

One of her CSM professors agreed.

“Nurses are in a unique position to promote health outcomes through mutual interaction with the person in a safe, caring, compassionate environment,” said Sara Cano, a registered nurse and associate professor at CSM. “As a result the patient often forms a trusting relationship with their nurse.”

Moving to Southern Maryland from Ohio where she grew up and received treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, Elfers aims to become a pediatric nurse, hoping to follow the example of the nurses who treated her while she underwent multiple surgeries and chemotherapy to treat the cancer in her leg.

The start of a journey

It all started with a lump on her leg. Elfers was a gymnast while a student at North Olmsted High School.

Doctors figured the bump was a blood clot, maybe calcified bone, whatever, it would be OK. It wasn’t until in her senior year that a physical therapist treating her for a gymnastic injury suggested that Elfers get the lump looked at more closely that that she learned it was cancer.

In the beginning, she underwent 10 weeks of chemotherapy, doctors hoping to kill about 90 percent of the tumor before removing the rest with surgery. By the end of chemotherapy, only 20 percent was killed.

Elfers was in for a long run of treatment, months of chemotherapy, 20 surgeries, overnights at the hospital.

At 17, she was one of the older kids on the pediatric floor and soon began forming friendships with some of the nurses.

“I had wonderful nurses,” she recalled. Tiring of hospital food, Elfers would be treated to Subway or Starbucks when nurses came back from their lunch breaks. They talked, shared vacation photos.

“Toward the end of treatment, I knew [nursing] was a great career,” Elfers said. “I thought I could take my story to help people.”

Real-world, classroom experience

Once Elfers completes her registered nurse associate degree at CSM, she would like to earn her bachelor’s in nursing from Frostburg State University’s online program. From there, nursing can take her anywhere.

“There are so many different things you can do,” in the nursing field, she said. “It’s a vast field.”

Her boyfriend, Kurt Dalman, is training to be a police officer in St. Mary’s County. He’s a native of California, she of Ohio. With their chosen professions, they could go anywhere.

Elfers’ story of battling cancer and being inspired to study nursing earned her a scholarship from the Lisa Higgins-Hussman Foundation, an award that is open to students 15 to 35 who have been affected by cancer through their own diagnosis or that of a parent or sibling.

“Shannon was selected as she is a true survivor in every sense of the word,” said Brock Yetso, president and CEO at Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, the group that issued the scholarship. “Shannon’s story is an inspiration and we are happy to present her with a scholarship to assist in her educational pursuits."

Elfers said it hasn’t been easy she suffered bilateral hearing loss because of chemo which resulted in her having to wear hearing aids in each ear. She gets by with reading lips and a “really expensive” stethoscope. But the field of study isn’t easy on anyone.

“It’s tough,” Elfers said. “But you have to be focused and you have to want to do it. But it’s rewarding.”

staylor@somdnews.com