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Saturday, November 25, 2017

JANE WALTON: Helping families and patients share their stories

Jane Walton. Photo by Daniel Friedman.

Jane Walton, senior media relations specialist for Phoenix Children’s Hospital, has been connecting Valley reporters with medical experts, patients and families for more than 20 years. She talks about her own early hospital memories, a career change after five kids and why she absolutely adores her job.

Your experience with hospitals dates back to childhood. What do you remember about those first visits?

My dad was a Navy doctor. He was assigned to the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific [during World War II]. One of my earliest experiences was going on rounds with him in a hospital at Camp Pendleton, a Marine base in Southern California. I was just fascinated by it. They made a big fuss over me, and of course a little girl likes that attention.

How old were you?

Five, maybe 6. Everybody really liked my dad. The soldiers were so sweet to me; they went into their pockets and found me little things that I still have to this day. I was always just amazed at the stuff my father did, and was able to do, to help these people.

You also have an early memory of medical treatment yourself, as most people do, that very first time you became a patient.

That was a pretty negative experience. I remember I had to have a tooth in my jaw removed. It was a military hospital, and I don’t think they were used to working with children at all. I remember just being so miserable, and it hurt so much. I’m just so glad our kids now don’t have to go through that.

People had a different understanding of children at that time.

They didn’t ever talk to them and say, “This is what’s going to happen” or “This is how the anesthetic is going to smell” — any of those things. They just went ahead and did it. They never even talked to you. They talked to your parents. Children have to know what to expect. And I think that’s the key.

You entered the public relations field as a second career following a divorce and after raising four kids in another state and working as a part-time bookkeeper.

I wanted to do something I really enjoyed doing. I like to read, I loved writing and I did want a career where I could support my family—something I would like that would be for me. I picked public relations and I started school at ASU. I knew I was in the wrong place before, and now I’m in the right place.

You took one particular class where the assignment was to report on a story and get it published.

It was a journalism class, and I wrote a story about the gifted children’s program at ASU. It was around 1994. I decided to submit it to magazine, never expecting that they would actually pick it up. They published it — it was the first time that I was ever published.

Talk about working with families who suddenly find themselves as the subject of a news story because of a medical situation. You act as a buffer at times, facilitating their contact with the media. Why would they want to talk to reporters?

They really want to tell their story. Of course, we have people who say no, and that’s what we always respect. But most of them, even though it is a tragic situation—I just can’t believe the courage of these people. I think it is therapeutic for them to tell the truth. And they really want to help other people, other families in the same situation.

Any case in particular that still resonates with you?

Often, you get a family in here that you really get to know. We had one about 12 years ago, a child who was in a car/bike accident. His spine was completely severed from his head. (Paramedics) brought him in. They thought he was dead. They just didn’t think anything would ever revive him. But one of our surgeons did an amazing operation and saved his life. He walked out of this hospital. That was such a miracle that everybody was there to see him leave—the police, the firemen. It was international news.

What do you love most about the job you do?

It’s working with the patients and the families. Their courage, their resilience, their willingness to forget the pain and all the things they’ve been through and thank us, and thank the doctors.

What do you think your dad would say about what you are doing today?

He’d love it! He really would.

Phoenix multimedia journalist Vicki Louk Balint produces audio and video stories for and through her own company, Small Change Productions.

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