NICU Nurse and Her Son Overcome Challenges to Make Dreams Come True
Valerie Shorten's journey at Cook Children's: cafeteria worker, NICU secretary, NICU nurse and mom of a patient with his own incredible story of healing at Cook Children's.
By Heather Duge
Valerie Shorten, BSN, RN, and her son Marquis are no strangers to overcoming obstacles. Each one has led them to where they are today.
“My brother was murdered, and I always thought about what I could have done to help him had I been there,” Valerie said. “That’s when I knew nursing was my calling.”
In 2011, Valerie found out about an open position at Cook Children’s – a place she had visited a few years before when Marquis had a minor injury while playing with his brother.
“I remember how caring everyone was and thinking with three boys it was probably not the last time I would be there,” Valerie said.
Journey to Becoming a NICU Nurse
She landed a job in the cafeteria where her love for serving others was evident. Fifteen months into joining Cook Children’s, Valerie applied for a secretary position in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. She quickly realized her new boss was a familiar face.
“I knew her food order,” Valerie said. “I was so focused on doing my job at the time that I didn’t realize she worked in the NICU. Customer service is everything to me.”
Once in the NICU, Valerie’s passion to become a nurse grew stronger. Her husband DeMario became sick which motivated her to enroll in nursing school. She started by taking two classes at a time with help from the hospital’s tuition reimbursement program. In May 2021, Valerie graduated from nursing school and started her first day as a nurse resident ten years from her first day in the cafeteria. She rotated through all the ICU’s and the Emergency Department for one year.
“It was great to see other areas in the hospital and gain respect for what they do,” Valerie said. “But my heart was in the NICU because I had been there so long. It felt like home. It has been amazing to grow into something I’ve always wanted to do.
This group I get to work with every day is very supportive, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn from them.”
Valerie relates to her patient families and treats the babies as if they were her own.
“I know that no one chooses to come into this hospital,” Valerie said. “You never know what a person is going through, so I make sure I always give the kind of treatment I would want for my child.”
In April 2022, Valerie was in the middle of her nursing shift when she received a text from Marquis that read “My spine hurts.” She told her son to take ibuprofen thinking it could be related to his running.
“Marquis is a runner and was number one in the district,” Valerie said. “He was slated to run in the regional meet to see if he would qualify for state. I thought the pain could be from a pulled muscle or running injury.”
Valerie told him to rest and let her know if it worsened. Marquis drove himself to the ED at Cook Children’s and at that point could not feel his right leg.
“I met him at the ED but didn’t think it was anything too severe,” Valerie said.
An MRI revealed a spinal epidural hematoma which required emergency surgery. If too much time passed, Marquis would be paralyzed.
“Everything was a blur, and I remember being overly emotional as Marquis continued to lose the feeling in his legs,” Valerie said. “But I knew he was at the right place.”
Marquis was quickly wheeled to the operating room where Daniel Hansen, M.D., Pediatric Neurosurgeon, removed the large blood clot that was compressing the spinal cord.
Recovering Physically and Mentally
Valerie became anxious thinking about his mental state when he woke up and realized all he worked for was not going to happen that year if at all.
“A nurse pulled his father and I aside and told me that when Marquis woke up, he asked when he would leave that day because he had a track meet in a few days,” Valerie said. “The real pain came when all the times were posted from the race he missed.”
Valerie and DeMario helped Marquis work through his emotions but did not let him stay down too long.
“I told him he could decide to lay there and be sad or decide what’s going to happen next,” Valerie said. “My life motto is that you are the writer of your story.”
Nurses realized how hard it was for him to face the reality that he missed the regional meet and was not sure what running would look like in the future. During the 10-day stay in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, Marquis says the nurses went above and beyond to bring him comfort. On a particularly hard day, the café was out of Chick-fil-A milkshakes, so the nurses gathered all the supplies and made him one.
“They did everything I needed before I even asked for it,” Marquis said. “They fixed my pillows a certain way, brought me the Gatorade flavor I liked with a straw, broke up pills because I couldn’t move my neck to swallow and positioned my toes for me when I couldn’t move them.”
Back on Track
Valerie says everyone was surprised how fast Marquis progressed. He was cleared to jog four months after surgery and in January 2023 ran in his first race since surgery at Texas Tech University.
“My parents kept me going,” Marquis said. “My track coaches Jesse Heard and Sa’Donna Thornton also were there for me. Coach Heard gave me a love for track and all he instilled in me is a big reason why I treat everyone with kindness. He has sacrificed countless hours just to help me succeed. Coach Thornton played a huge part in helping me gain my confidence back and keep my positive outlook about the situation. I knew God had a plan and it would turn out OK.”
A Lifelong Dream Come True
Marquis says coming back from a major illness has only made his passion for running stronger, and he wanted to prove to everyone he was just as good. He has accomplished that and more. He recently graduated and received his high school’s Optimist Award. This Fall, Marquis will attend Texas Christian University on a full track scholarship – a goal he set for himself at only 10 years old.
“Marquis decided in fourth grade that he would one day attend TCU,” Valerie said. “Jokingly, I expressed how his father and I did not budget for TCU. At the time, our fourth grader looked at me on the car ride to school and said, ‘Don't worry, I'm going to get a scholarship.’ His dreams came true.”
Dr. Hansen said: “The most gratifying part of my job is seeing kids through their illness to the other side. For Marquis, that means a life that is everything he has always wanted.”