Breck B. steps out of the unofficial changing room in a pale blue strapless gown, the matching shawl draped across her shoulders. She looks like Grace Kelly: tall, fair, and graceful, her dark blonde hair tied up in a loose bun. When she’s told so, she laughs it off softly, diverting the attention.
This will be Breck’s third time attending the Renal Teen Prom, hosted by Lori Hartwell and the Renal Support Network (RSN). Or so Breck believes—she can’t completely remember how many times she’s been. She first attended after her kidney transplant at age seventeen, her mother the donor. Thirteen years later, Breck and her mother, moving through the racks of gowns in tandem, share an easy, almost non-verbal language. Breck holds up a gown and her mother tilts her head—the gown’s put back. Another’s chosen and the mother-daughter pair share a look, then move the chosen dress to the “maybe” pile. As the session unfolds, we learn this is the first in-person iteration of the “Dress Shop” that’s taken over RSN’s Studio Hope since the Pandemic. Breck is the first guest of this year’s prom to have a fitting. She steps out next in a lovely brown gown, floral embroidery dancing up the side. Her face lights up as she looks in the mirror. One of the volunteers suggests Breck looks like a “woodland fairy” and Breck murmurs in agreement, pausing and posing for a moment so her mother can take a picture.
By day, Breck’s a nurse. She works primarily in the OBGYN unit of her Los Angeles hospital, though occasionally floats around to perform other duties. For four years she’s been working long hours, dedicated to helping patients. “Connecting with [the patients] is the most important thing to me,” she shares, “putting myself in their shoes.” When she got her kidney transplant, Breck remarks that the nurses made the biggest impact; they took care of her, showed her kindness, and listened to her in ways that the doctors weren’t able to. “The patients know their bodies better than the providers do,” she muses. “Try to listen to what they are saying, especially when it’s urgent.”
Breck has always put her patients first. When she was working in Labor and Delivery—her favorite—a patient arrived, about to give birth, but she only spoke Chinese. With the help of one of the day nurses, Breck learned a few key phrases in Chinese, scribbling them phonetically onto a piece of paper (“push” being the key) and was able to guide the patient away from an unplanned C-section and towards a vaginal birth. Another time, a patient came in with a “bulging bag,” close to her water breaking—though she was only about 20 weeks along. Breck stayed with her for several nights in a row, giving her comfort and checking on the baby as often as was possible. A few months later when Breck was working at the Women’s Clinic, the same patient came in and recognized Breck; she remembered her for her extraordinary kindness and care. The woman showed Breck pictures of the baby, who only lived a few days past birth. As she recalls the second story, Breck’s cheerful attitude drops into sadness and she’s silent for a moment. She’s proud of how much she’s been able to help, and still the loss cuts deep.
Despite the love of her patients, Breck’s reaching burnout with work. The emotional toll keeps climbing, on top of the post-Pandemic return to mistreatment (“For a while, everyone was grateful, then it stopped”). When asked if she’d want to work a different job, Breck worries that she’s not sure she’d be able to help others as much as in her current position as a nurse. She pushes forward, keeps working despite the added risk as an immunocompromised transplant patient. It’s about helping others for her, above everything. Whatever she can do. True dedication and selflessness.
When speaking about her transplant, Breck is straightforward and unemotional. She shares that she doesn’t remember too much about growing up with kidney disease, though she knows she was diagnosed with renal dysplasia. If she could do it again, she’d record the experience in some way, for example by vlogging on YouTube, with the intention of helping others to feel less alone. When Breck was getting her new kidney, there was a poster at the hospital for the Renal Teen Prom. She attended and became connected with Lori and the RSN. The prom was Breck’s first exposure to being around a large group of kids her age who had a similar background with kidney disease—especially seeing others who were undergoing dialysis, which Breck never had to experience. “It makes you grateful,” she says. “For the most part, I felt normal.” Currently, she does her best to take care of her transplant and live healthily, despite the stress and long hours at work. She feels that she needs to stay in the healthcare field for another reason: the easier access to care and the available benefits. Breck does her best to be a good patient herself: she takes her anti-rejection medication, attends her appointments, and drinks green tea every morning. When asked to share any advice for young people undergoing treatment for kidney disease, she remarks: “Take your medications, wear a mask” (mentioning that she’s glad masks are normalized these days) “and take care of your transplant if you have one!” She also shares the importance of asking questions throughout the process and doing your best to remain patient and kind.
Breck embodies gratitude, empathy, and grace in all aspects of her life. She has a theatre background from her childhood and shares that she sometimes likes to sing around the house on her days off from the hospital. I imagine her waltzing with her three cats like a contemporary Cinderella. She’s an avid reader, loves to travel and go to Disneyland, and plays video games. When asked what her wish for the New Year is, Breck pauses for a moment before sharing: “To be happy. That’s always my wish. Every time.” She wishes, too, that the medical system will change in terms of healthcare access. That treatment will become more accessible, affordable, and trustworthy.
At the dress shop, Breck finally decides on a unique, asymmetrical brown dress with one sleeve twisting over the shoulder like a vine. She shares how much she’s looking forward to another year of the Prom, seeing which special guests arrive. She’s attending with her boyfriend, whom she’s been with since college. The final choice in her evening attire is shoes, and Breck immediately goes for a beautiful, shimmery pair with a bow on the back. As with all things, she’s gracious, humble and kind—slipping on the shoes, Cinderella indeed.
Maxine Phoenix is a freelance writer and she also volunteers for RSN.
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