The Ex-Pat With a Purpose

By Maxine Phoenix

As we sit down to chat, Lesley H. shares that she’s just returned from travels to her native New Zealand and to Australia. She’s returned the very day before, but shows no signs of fatigue, of jet lag. Perhaps when you’ve seen as much as she has, zooming back and forth across the world doesn’t affect you quite as much. She’s cheerful, delightfully twangy in her “Kiwi” accent, and delightfully purpose-driven: helping children has been, is, and always will be, her guiding light.

Lori Hartwell and Lesley at the 2022 University Kidney Research Organization (UKRO) Gala where Lori received UKRO’s Spirit of Life Award

Lesley became connected to RSN nearly fifty years ago. RSN didn’t exist yet, but its founder, Lori Hartwell did—and Lesley was her nurse. She was working at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and can still recall that moment when a seven-year-old Lori “came through the door with a pillow in her hand, entourage behind her. She was in control, even at age seven.” Lori was with her mother and grandmother, but, as Lesley shares, that child was the leader of her own health. Lori and Lesley connected immediately, but when Lori changed hospitals to follow her primary doctor, they lost contact. Then, years later, Lori was doing editing work for a magazine and the two women reconnected. Once again, Lori walked through the door—this time as an adult, sharing about a new monitoring device that would measure the available fluid doctors and nurses could get with their machines in hemodialysis. “She was a bang-on sales rep for the company and there she was, her usual lovely self,” Lesley recalls with a delightful laugh. Around that same time, Lori was first ideating for the Renal Teen Prom, floating ideas around. She asked Lesley if she’d want to volunteer. “In the beginning, [the Prom] was very much a ‘do-it-yourself’ type thing,” Lesley chuckles. “The kids were sitting in school desk chairs. I remember bringing a couch in from my home to help decorate a bit.” She reveals that some of the doctors from the hospital came for the first few Proms—and some still do. “It was intimate back then, a small group.” And an important one, providing a sense of normalcy and delight for young people who needed it.

Lesley helps a prom attendee try on a prom dress

Once the Prom was underway, Lesley remained involved. “Back when I was working in the unit, it was fun to tell the kids about it, persuade them to go.” Back in the first days of the Prom, things were different—Lesley and other volunteers would go and pick the kids up from their houses, transporting them personally to the event. Lesley shares how much she’s loved seeing the event develop through the years, alongside the medical technology which has allowed the kids to have more and more fun, to be increasingly outgoing. “In those first few years, they weren’t quite as well, and I remember they were all so shy,” Lesley shares. She’s seen the kids grow up, start careers, get married, have children, and feels a strong sense of love towards them all. The connection reigns strong.

Lesley and prom attendees showing off the dress selection

From the Prom involvement, Lesley and Lori started spending more time together. The relationship, once between nurse and patient, transformed to that of two friends. Lesley speaks of Lori with pride and joy. “She is such a fighter, you know.” They’ve seen each other through difficult times—but also wonderful ones. Lesley moved out to Oklahoma for a while, but returned to California for Lori’s wedding to her husband Dean. Then she joined the RSN board, continued to help out. And Lori has continued to inspire her. “After everything she’s been through, I have so much respect for her. Her mind’s always buzzing.” As a child, Lesley shares, Lori was just as creative and in-control, both in regards to her medical life and her artistic one. “She’s the epitome of a self-made woman, that’s for sure.”

I ask Lesley about her own past, how she got from New Zealand all the way to Los Angeles. “I always knew I wanted to work at the Children’s Hospital,” she says. Upon coming to LA for a vacation, Lesley saw the hospital from a distance and a thought rippled across her mind: “that’s where I want to work.” She was recently divorced and had been working as a registered nurse in New Zealand. America was in her future. She made it happen. “I came over here and qualified for all that I need to qualify for.” Lesley became a pediatric nurse, with a focus on family-centered care. She reflects on her work with Lori once again, noting that “sometimes the parents run the child’s life, and sometimes it’s the other way around.” Certain children, like Lori, are the ones in charge of their own health, leading the way in their recovery, despite their youth.

“When I was growing up, nursing wasn’t always considered a good job for young ladies,” Lesley reveals. The hours proved difficult, posed a risk to how she was seen in society—and she did it anyway. However, the idea to become a nurse specifically didn’t come to her right away. First, she traveled the world. Growing up, Lesley did what she describes as “working holiday,” where she’d travel to other countries for jobs. She went to London, Spain, Sweden. Then, when she was about twenty-six, nursing called to her and the rest is history. She reflects fondly on all of her travels. “I’d definitely go back to Japan.” These days, a lot of her travel is between the US and New Zealand, so she can go back to visit her family and friends. “These days, it’s business class all the way!” she cackles. In the early days going back home, she’d bring her family things like Jiffy Pop and little souvenirs with her nieces’ and nephews’ names on them. Nowadays, you can get most things in most places…but New Zealand is still a bit different. “They don’t use cash,” Lesley explains. “No cash, no checks—completely unnecessary. Everything’s done electronically at this point.” Lesley is settled now, living in the United States, but dreams of spending six months out of the year back home in New Zealand, six months in her home in Santa Monica, staying for the warmer months in both places. “I’m trying to figure it out.”

Lesley reflects on how much things have changed in the medical community since she started. “When I was starting my nursing training, I was so happy—it really fulfilled me.” And yet, there were still moments of difficulty, impossible to avoid. “Death was always the hardest thing.” Nowadays, there’s such a rush to everything. “When I was nursing in the old days, you had more time, you had connection.” Lesley recalls a moment in time when she was able to go to the morgue twice with a mother who had lost a baby. The woman was having difficulty to let go, and Lesley was able to be there for her, provide support. “It’s not as easy to do these kinds of things now. The nursing load is so heavy. Moments of preciousness are squeezed in, rather than lovingly unfolding.” She puts it beautifully, and continues with, “Time is so precious when you’re working.” Towards the end of her time nursing, Lesley felt like she wasn’t able to give quite as much of that precious time to her patients. But these days, she’s gotten it back.

Leslie on prom night, getting a prom attendee ready to be glammed up just before the prom gets started

Since retiring her sixties (sixty-five, to be exact!) Lesley has been volunteering. She’s continued to work with children, as a part of the Community Garden in Santa Monica, under the Public Works division. “I help kids grow plants, look at worms, make salad from the vegetables, or even eat a carrot straight out of the ground…after washing it, of course,” Lesley remarks delightfully. “Some kids have never seen a tomato growing on a vine. And sometimes the teachers haven’t either!” Once a month, the garden hosts a community “pancake and coffee” day, which she also helps out at. And every week, Lesley does beach cleanups with her friend. Even in the winter, they walk along the sand and look for trash.

We return to the nursing conversation for a moment. Lesley shares that she thinks the change, moving more towards technicality and away from “working from the heart,” has more to do with the medical advancements. “We’ve become a lot more clever about saving lives—more technically advanced in all ways. As nurses, too. But people adapt.” She’d still encourage young people to pursue nursing, as well as helping out and advocating in other ways. “If you put yourself out there and go to community events, it can be a great way to meet people and find out how you can help, how you can volunteer,” she suggests.

Lesley and prom volunteer Hanna ready to help young prom guest choose their dress

Lesley is a naturally joyful person. Naturally grounded, too. “I’ve been blessed with a sunny nature,” she says. “It makes it easier to find a way to get around a situation, and to make the best of things.” Yet, she still has things that she turns to in the difficult moments: her friends. And a sense of connection with the universe. She’s seen things come full circle (one of the greatest being her connection with Lori), watched “coincidences” unfold time and time again, and understands that there is a way to hold space for something greater. “I’m not a religious person,” Lesley starts, then continues, “and yet I know there’s something greater than just this. And then I leave it like that. I believe in the Universe above all else, that it will provide me with whatever I need. I don’t have a fear of dying. Whatever is going to happen, it’ll be fine.” She adds, after a moment, a cheeky afterthought: “There was a mug I was given for my 80th birthday by my sister-in-law that says, ‘I’m not 80, I’m 18 with 52 years of experience.’” Indeed—it’s all about the lessons we gather along the way. Lesley has that figured out in all aspects of life.

Her three words to describe herself are “Approachable, kind, and outgoing.” She practices what she preaches, even in an hourlong conversation. As we wrap up, I suggest for her to have a relaxing rest of her day, and Lesley laughs her wonderful laugh and quips, “If there’s one thing I’m an expert at, it’s relaxing!” Her sunny nature shines through and has brought light to the darkness, not only in her life, but in her friends ‘and in everyone who is lucky to encounter her.



Maxine Phoenix is a freelance writer and she also volunteers for RSN.

Web ID 8099