Celebrate Every Day
Court Simmons ’18 dreams of paying it forward
Tuesday, May 15, 2018
by Katie Smith '15
Court Simmons ’18 won’t walk across the commencement stage with the rest of the Class of 2018 on Saturday, May 19. The interdisciplinary health services major, who completed studies in December 2017, says it’s simple: “I’m not done yet.”
“I have loved my time at Saint Joseph’s,” says Simmons, a Philadelphia native, “but it’s one step in a larger plan for me.”
The goal? To become a pediatric oncology nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).
“The staff at CHOP are extraordinary,” says Simmons. “They showed me a phenomenal level of care, and I want to do that for other children.”
Simmons, who prefers gender neutral language, has a long history with the CHOP nursing staff, beginning in 2006, when their sister, Christina, was diagnosed with brain cancer. While their mother, a single parent and a cancer survivor herself, focused on Christina, the nurses would care for Simmons and younger brother Reginald — doing their laundry and turning medical scrubs into craft fodder. Simmons recalls during overnight emergencies, when Christina would code, it was a nurse who took the siblings into the playroom to offer some distraction.
“The CHOP staff made me — as a sibling of a patient — feel like the only person in the room,” says Simmons, who would later face a cancer battle: an osteosarcoma discovered in their left shin bone in 2012. Simmons underwent three months of chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor, including a total knee replacement and a titanium femur prosthesis.
“During my treatment, the same nurses and staff who cared for me when my sister was at CHOP supported me — albeit, in a much different way,” Simmons says.
Their mother’s two-time cancer diagnoses, paired with Christina’s and Court’s, lead to genetic testing. The Simmons family was diagnosed with Li-Fraumeni Syndrome, a genetic predisposition to several cancers, including osteosarcoma, breast and brain cancers, and soft tissue sarcoma. Simmons' sister and mother would unfortunately lose their battles with cancer. Reginald, 11 at the time, was the only member of the family to test negatively.
Earning a full-tuition cancer survivor scholarship from the Philadelphia Eagles, Simmons joined Saint Joseph’s in the fall of 2013 — the first in the family to attend college.
“I visited SJU the weekend after I finished cancer treatment,” Simmons says. “It was the first college I toured — and I knew I was meant to be here the moment I stepped onto campus. Receiving the scholarship just confirmed that.”
At first, Simmons recalls a difficulty in connecting with peers: Most 18-year-olds don’t have so much perspective on life.
“I was just excited to be able to stay up late, studying and stressing — what often feels like the worst parts of college,” Simmons recalls. “I struggled to find a place for myself.”
Instead of finding a place, Simmons created one. In their sophomore year, Simmons organized the University’s first dance marathon to benefit the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals and CHOP, raising $28,000 in 2016 and $20,000 this past fall, and received the 2017 Miracle Network Dance Marathon Distinguished Leadership Award.
“In my four and a half years at Saint Joseph’s, I’ve done the most good in my entire life,” says Simmons, “and I know I couldn’t have achieved so much anywhere else.”
In considering a future in medicine, Simmons feels newly equipped to take on such difficult work because of the “unconditional, effortless compassion” they learned at SJU — from faculty who made them feel heard, a service-learning course in hospice care, studying abroad in Madrid, Spain, and the study of human nature with James Hebbeler, Ph.D., associate professor of philosophy.
“I don’t need to know anything about someone to recognize their humanity and have that be enough,” says Simmons. “It feels effortless to love people for who they are.”
Today, Simmons works as a nanny, while saving up for nursing school and perfecting their applications. A few days a week, Simmons visits hospice patients at Tucker House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center and spends time with Reginald, who studies psychology at Drexel University and researches grief and coping with loss.
In October 2017, Simmons celebrated five years without cancer — a survivor — a milestone they celebrated with a homemade cake. The family's Li-Fraumeni diagnosis makes normal life more complicated: Simmons undergoes screenings for breast, bone, blood and brain cancers every six months.
But Simmons remains positive, saying “I celebrate every day. The fact that I get to do the things that I want, that I can walk, that I can feel the sun on my face — it’s all perfect.”