One weekend in May of 2013, 4 year-old Carolyn Hendrix complained of stomach pain. Her parents, Jeff and Kathryn, initially thought she might have appendicitis.

After a blood test, an ultrasound and a CAT scan, she was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma, a rare type of cancer. Carolyn was immediately admitted to the Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart. That night would be the first of more than 100 that she and her parents would spend in the building over the next year.

In May of 2014 she was declared as “no evidence of disease,” or NED. The year leading up to that miraculous day, Carolyn endured 17 rounds of chemotherapy. Sometimes the hospital stay was three days, other times it would be as long as two weeks, depending on how she reacted to the treatment.

Jeff Hendrix credits not only the nurses and doctors, but also the support staff with helping the family feel comfortable during a trying time.

“There are not better nurses anywhere. They get down on her level, make her feel like she’s part of the process. They became family to us,” he said.

“But it wasn’t just the nurses. The ladies that brought lunch and cleaned the room. We still see them and have close relationships with them,” Hendrix said. “A lot of time they get overlooked. Having good people in those positions makes a difference.”

The Children’s Hospital opened in 1969 in the renovated former dormitory of the Sacred Heart School of Nursing, which closed in 1967. The current location has 117 beds and opened in 1996. A new, $125 million stand alone hospital has been proposed.

The expansion from a pediatric ward to a full hospital was the result of the support of the Daughters of Charity, who ran the hospital, and of a few dedicated pediatricians who brought Pensacola’s pediatric community on board with the idea.

Reed Bell, M.D., and John Whitcomb, M.D., were frustrated that pediatricians had to travel to Sacred Heart Hospital, Baptist Hospital and Escambia General Hospital to visit patients before driving to their own practices every day. While each had its own pediatric unit, no one hospital had all the specialized nurses and equipment needed for up-to-date care of children.

“The main key to me is separate nursing care that you don’t have to switch your mind from adult to children,” said Jimmy Jones, M.D., who started at Sacred Heart in 1972 and was the only pediatric surgeon in the Panhandle for 35 years. “Everything is tuned in to the child.”

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In 1970, the neonatal intensive care unit was created to treat premature babies and other newborns suffering from infections, birth defects and other conditions. In 1972, Sacred Heart was designated as one of Florida’s first Regional Perinatal Intensive Care Centers.

In the early days, there were seven beds under the treatment of Edward Westmark, M.D., and John Nagel, M.D. Today there are 67 beds in the unit.

“It has grown and thrived and kept high quality people and physicians in the nursery,” said Westmark, the first area physician to specialize in neonatology and the key physician in developing the NICU. “What it does is provide a large population of people that can come to this NICU and not have to go all the way to Gainesville, which is where the next unit is. It’s been a godsend for parents where they can stay in their hometown and be with their babies and not have to travel 300 miles.”

A key to the economic viability of a children’s hospital is its ability to draw from a large geographic area in order to support the specialists under its roof. These include those who focus on heart, blood, lung, hormonal and kidney diseases, among others.

Economics aside, compassionate care is the focus of current and former nurses. Nada Durant was nurse manager in the Children’s Hospital where she worked since it first opened. She retired in 2007 after a total of 44 years spent working for Sacred Heart. She would direct her nursing staff to always listen to the parents.

“Not everybody is meant to be a pediatric nurse. You have to have a lot of patience and understanding of the families,” she said. “They know the child far better than you could know the child. If they want you to call the doctor, you call the doctor.”

Jones said treating children is rewarding because most get well, they heal fast and they accept their situation well.

“Knowing that you’re making someone well at age 2 is much more rewarding than making them well at age 98,” he said. “Then you see them along. It’s like a school teacher who remembers all his students.”

Today, little Carolyn Hendrix is an energetic first-grader who just started school last week. Every three months she has a CAT scan to make sure the cancer doesn’t return to her little body. She loves to play with dolls, go swimming and wrestle with her dad and brothers, Bennett and Stephen.

“Other than having shorter hair than most of the girls in her class, I don’t think most people would know what was going on,” her father said. “She is back to an active life now and is doing really well.”