Registered nurse Joel Nava cleans the port in 5-year-old Bently Brazlovitz's stomach

Call it fate, call it kismet, call it karma.

Joel Nava calls it the opportunity to live his dream.

Nava is a registered nurse at Cardon Children’s Medical Center, where he began working a couple of months ago.

But, his connection to the children’s hospital goes back much further. Nava is a childhood cancer survivor. He was diagnosed with leukemia at age 13 and underwent 2½ years of chemotherapy before being declared cancer-free. It was a short-lived celebration. Three months later, Nava relapsed and was readmitted to the hospital.

He remembers well the conversation with his doctor when he was initially diagnosed. He was just about to complete seventh grade.

“The doctor told me I had leukemia. I was like, ‘Give me a vaccine or whatever,’” Nava said. “I thought they could just fix it.”

His doctor explained that leukemia is blood cancer. That sunk in, Nava said.

“I knew cancer was bad,” he said.

He was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he stayed for two weeks before going to Banner Desert Medical Center, which then housed Banner Children’s Hospital. The separate Cardon Children’s Medical Center, next door to Banner Desert, opened in November 2009, close to the time Nava was declared cancer-free for the second time.

Nava remembers his nurses at the Banner hospitals well.

“Thanks to the nurses, it was a lot better than it could have been,” Nava said of his treatment and frequent hospital stays.

He was lucky, he says, because he responded well to chemotherapy.

The first time they told him the cancer was gone, “I tried to go back to being 16,” Nava said.

His return to being a regular teenager didn’t last long. Just a couple of months, later he started having severe headaches.

“My symptoms had never manifested in my head,” he said of his initial cancer issues.

The pain prompted him to call his oncologist, who conducted a spinal tap. That showed that some spinal fluid was building up in his head. The fluid was removed and Nava felt better almost immediately, until he was told his leukemia was active again.

“They tell you there’s a chance you’ll relapse,” Nava said. “I didn’t expect it at all. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen. I thought things would be normal, but it’s not when you have cancer.”

The relapse hit hard, Nava said.

“I felt things were falling out of place,” he said.

He found it significantly harder to deal with the diagnosis and return to the hospital the second time.

“I was tired,” Nava said. “I didn’t want to do it all again.”

He did do it all again, thanks in big part to his mom, Maria del Carmen Felix Estrada. Also helping were his siblings and the doctors, nurses and aides at the hospital.

“They all picked me up and carried me,” Nava said.

Three years later, at age 19, he was again declared cancer-free, a status he’s maintained for six years. In most cancer diagnoses, staying cancer-free for five years is the magic number.

It’s become easy for him to look back now and “only remember the good stuff.”

Those memories include playing cards all night with nurses and doing other silly things with the staff.

“I remember having fun with them,” he said. “Now I think of it, more or less, as a positive experience.”

Nava began his nursing career almost exactly a year ago, working 10 months at Banner University Medical Center before moving to Cardon.

Leaving University wasn’t a decision he made lightly.

“I loved it there, but when I got told about the Cardon opening ... it was a fantastic opportunity,” he said.

Registered Nurse Christine Jorgensen has worked at Cardon for 16 years and was one of the nurses who cared for Nava when he was a teen.

She and other Cardon nurses “are so excited” to have Nava on their team.

“I think he will make a great oncology nurse,” Jorgensen said.

The pride she has for Nava’s success is evident as they work together with patients. Jorgensen hovers closely over Nava’s shoulder, but lets him do the work.

“It’s heartwarming,” she said. “I’m so proud of him that he’s a nurse and he followed this path.”

Cardon nurses recognize that Nava brings a big bonus to the job—perspective.

“He’ll be a great patient advocate,” Jorgensen said. “He knows what these kids are going through.”

Nava received his nursing degree from Arizona State University in August 2015 after following a convoluted path. He was a biochemistry major for three years. He spent 10 months in Japan as part of a study abroad program as a junior. When he came home he realized he didn’t want a career in biochemistry and declared a new major: Japanese.

In a conversation around mid-semester, his friend “randomly said her sister was a nurse.”

Nava started talking about “how awesome” nurses are, remembering his time in hospitals.

He experienced “a weird, eureka moment” during that conversation.

“It hit me, finally. I wanted to be a nurse,” Nava said. “Obviously, I’m impulsive.”

He immediately knew he’d be a pediatric cancer nurse.

Nava spouts off a long list of superlatives as he describes his Cardon job and co-workers: fantastic, super, awesome.

“I love bedside nursing, and that’s what we do here,” he said.

While a newcomer to the workforce, Nava can’t imagine a better job in life.

He recognizes that careers require growth and change, “but this is literally my dream job. I love it. I’m so happy to be here.”

– Contact reporter Shelley Ridenour at 480-898-6533 or sridenour@timespublications.com.

– Comment on this story and like the East Valley Tribune on Facebook and follow EVTNow on Twitter.

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