Super Mom: Carlina McGuire Nickerson

This alumna earned her degree while helping her toddler beat cancer.

by Bob Yearick

Carlina and her family, from left: Kyleigh, 8, Carlina, Eddie, Kamryn, 6
Carlina and her family, from left: Kyleigh, 8, Carlina, Eddie, Kamryn, 6. Photo by Ron Dubick.

Nov. 2, 2011.

The date is permanently seared into Carlina McGuire Nickerson’s memory. That’s the day she was told that her 3-year-old daughter, Kyleigh, had leukemia.

“She was getting a lot of bruises,” Nickerson says. “And then she came up with a huge bruise in the middle of her stomach. I honestly thought it was a blood clot, so I took her to her doctor the next morning and the doctor did some blood work. That same afternoon I got a phone call from the doctor telling us to pack a bag because we needed to go to A.I. duPont [Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington], and that we would be staying for a while. Once we got there, the doctors told us it was leukemia.”

At the time, Nickerson was a student at Wilmington University and living in Hartley, just outside Dover, where she worked for the state as a scheduler for the Delaware Hospital for the Chronically Ill. She had been married and divorced, and had enrolled in September as a Behavioral Science major under her married name, Carlina Reynolds (McGuire is her maiden name).

She had a two-year degree in Human Services from Delaware Technical Community College, but the state required a bachelor’s degree for the kind of jobs she aspired to. WilmU offered her a path to that degree.

“Wilmington made it convenient,” she says. “They worked around my schedule.”

She says had just finished Block 1 courses when she got the news about Kyleigh. “It hit me like a ton of bricks. I really had no experience with anything like this before and it was really, really scary.”

With the illness came a complete change of lifestyle.

Nickerson took a leave of absence from her job under the state’s donated leave program, and she and Kyleigh moved into A.I. Hospital. Eddie Nickerson, who was then her fiancé, and her mother stayed in Hartley to care for the Nickersons’ 6-month-old daughter, Kamryn.

Their one-month stay at A.I. proved to be a physical and emotional test for both patient and parent.

“During that first month,” says Nickerson, “we didn’t know if she would live or die. I tried to make things as normal as possible for her, and not let her see how scared and worried I was.”

But, she admits, “I had a couple little breakdowns.”

Not surprisingly for a 3-year-old, Kyleigh wasn’t always a model patient. “She was scared and anxious, and sometimes she would refuse her medication and have a meltdown,” says Nickerson.

What’s more, Kyleigh’s sleep schedule was disrupted because of the stress and the unfamiliar environment.

“It was hard to tell what was night or day in the hospital,” Nickerson says, “and with the medication and everything sometimes she would stay up until 3 a.m. Other times it would be 8 p.m.”

As soon as Kyleigh closed her eyes, Nickerson would break out the laptop the hospital had lent her and do her school work. (WilmU had allowed her to switch to online courses.)

Mother and daughter spent Thanksgiving at the hospital, enjoying a turkey dinner donated by Boston Market for all the patients and their parents.

Because Kyleigh’s immune system was compromised, she was allowed little or no interaction with other patients and wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital. Nickerson was not under those restrictions, but, she says, “She was so scared, so I stayed the whole time.”

She did take one brief break; her sisters came up from downstate and took her to dinner — “just to get me out of the hospital,” she says.

Nickerson emphasizes that she had tremendous support from her family, especially her mother, her fiancé and her father. “But,” she says, “I did miss Kamryn’s first steps back home.”

Kyleigh was released in time for Christmas, but her treatment continued for the next two-and-a-half years. “In the beginning, we had to go back to A. I. two or three times a week for chemo treatments, which were administered through the spine, so she had to be put to sleep,” says Nickerson. “If she got a fever, that meant two or three days at the hospital.”

She estimates that during the extended treatment, her daughter was sedated a hundred times.

For the first eight months, Kyleigh couldn’t leave the house except for treatments. Nickerson continued to stay with her while pursuing her WilmU degree, and she graduated in January of 2013.

“Wilmington was very supportive,” says Nickerson. “The administrative staff switched me to online courses, and if I had to miss anything, they were very flexible in working with me.”

Scott George, coordinator of the University’s downstate Behavioral Science program, was one of her instructors. “Carlina was in my online section of ORG 408: Culture of the Workplace, in the Spring Semester of 2012,” George says. “I’m pleased to have been part of her academic journey, and proud of the small part I was able to play in her phenomenal success story. Having the flexibility that online classes offer is one of the many ways that WilmU meets the contemporary needs of our students.”

In the last year of treatment, Kyleigh’s trips to A. I. were reduced to once a month. And finally, on Jan. 7, 2014 — another date Nickerson will never forget — came the news the entire family had hoped for: a final bone-marrow test was negative for cancer.

That demanded a celebration – an “I Beat Cancer” party at Kyleigh’s day care center in Hartley, where she reigned over the princesses-and-pirates festivities in a crown and pink gown complete with tutu.

“Now that she’s in remission we go for lab work and checkups every three months,” says Nickerson, “and we’ll continue to do so until she’s 21 years old.”

Soon after receiving her WilmU degree, Nickerson was promoted to Human Resources Specialist II, which immediately doubled her pay grade. The job requires a bachelor’s degree.

“It has three pay levels, and in August I moved up to the highest level,” she says proudly.

Indeed, beating leukemia seemed to set off a wave of good fortune for the mother of two. Her promotion enabled the family to purchase a new house in Hartley, and on Oct. 1 she and Eddie Nickerson were married at Tuckahoe State Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Some 160 guests attended, and 8-year-old Kyleigh and 6-year-old Kamryn acted as flower girls. Both were healthy and happy. WU