Milton Wright III has only worked at Seattle Children’s for a couple months, but the hospital has been his second home for much of his life.
Milton’s childhood unfolded within Seattle Children’s walls — making friends, experiencing loss and facing death more times than he can count.
Today, Milton is back at Seattle Children’s — not as a patient, but as an employee and a symbol of hope.
“I want to do something that’s worthy of my life being saved,” Milton said.
Growing up at Seattle Children’s
Milton, now 24, is a certified nursing assistant (CNA) in Seattle Children’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). He first came to the hospital when he was just 8 years old.
“My family and I were living in Arizona when I became terribly ill,” Milton said. “I was in pain, lethargic and only weighed as much as my 2-year-old sister. No one could figure out what was wrong with me until I came to Seattle Children’s.”
Milton was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). After three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy, he and his family believed he was cured. But Milton would relapse at age 15, and again when he was 20.
Milton remembers limping to Seattle Children’s Emergency Department (ED) from his nearby apartment five years ago. He’d fallen on a metal handrail while playing basketball and hurt his ribs. He was struggling to breathe.
Blood and bone marrow tests revealed Milton’s cancer was back — a third time. He didn’t believe there were any treatment options left.
“I’d known friends who’d died after their third cancer diagnosis,” Milton said. “I figured they’d give me my six months.”
But Dr. Rebecca Gardner, a principal investigator with Seattle Children’s Research Institute, had other plans for Milton. The research institute had recently opened a clinical trial, Pediatric Leukemia Adoptive Therapy (PLAT-01), treating relapsed ALL with immunotherapy — an experimental therapy that reprograms a patient’s immune system to fight cancer cells.
The trial offered Milton a chance to survive. At the time, only one other patient had been treated with this therapy. Milton would be the second.
“It sounded like a miracle,” Milton said. “It was a risk I had to take. There were no other options.”
Milton was relieved to learn that cancer immunotherapy would require less chemotherapy than his previous treatments.
“I had a combined six years of chemotherapy at that point, so when they said I would only need three months of treatment, that was amazing,” he said.
But Milton’s treatment would not be easy.
After his immunotherapy infusion, Milton spiked a fever and his vital signs diminished. Cardiomyopathy, caused by years of chemotherapy, threatened his life. He was sent to the PICU — where he works today.
“I remember waking up and hearing doctors in my room talking about stopping my treatment,” he said. “They said ‘We don’t think your heart can handle it.’ But I knew there were no other options. I told them, ‘Let’s keep going.’”
Within a few days, Milton’s condition improved and he was moved back to Seattle Children’s Cancer Care Unit. He would go on to have a bone marrow transplant and has been cancer-free ever since — for nearly five years.
“I am so grateful to Seattle Children’s for every day I’m alive, every day I’ve survived. Now I want to make my life count,” Milton said.
Finding a purpose
Shortly after he completed treatment, Milton moved to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and began looking for work and a sense of direction. He took a job providing geriatric care in a nursing home, where his employers offered him the opportunity to earn his CNA.
“That’s when I began to consider working in the medical field,” Milton said. “I thought, maybe my life was saved so I could save other people like me.”
At the same time, Milton was introduced to a young woman being treated for cancer back in Seattle. She’d heard Milton’s story and reached out to him on Facebook. For months, she confided in Milton and he did his best to support her.
“Even though she was in constant pain, and knew she was going to die, she didn’t want to tell her family. But she felt like she could tell me. It broke my heart,” he said. “Even today, I think about everything she would have done with her life. That’s what drives me.”
The experience brought Milton clarity and resolution in his decision to pursue a career caring for others.
Milton earned his CNA and worked for a year at a hospital in Coeur d’Alene. All the while, he had one goal in mind: to come back and work at Seattle Children’s.
CNA criteria differ between Idaho and Washington, so Milton had to take additional classes and register as a CNA in Washington before he could return. After that, he spent months applying for positions at Seattle Children’s until he was invited to interview.
He said, “I think one of the oncology charge nurses saw my application and declared, ‘Oh get him in. He’s the perfect fit.’”
Milton was hired as a CNA in Children’s PICU in March 2018.
“Milton has always been a bright spot at Seattle Children’s,” Lauren Huang, an ARNP who cared for Milton during his cancer immunotherapy treatment, said. “He’s been through a lot, but he remains positive, warm and genuine. Seeing him in the hallways always brings a smile to my face.”
Choosing Seattle Children’s
Some cancer survivors avoid the settings where they were treated, haunted by memories of taxing therapies and severe illness. But Milton says he’s never felt that way about Seattle Children’s. In fact, much the opposite.
“The nurses and doctors at Seattle Children’s became my family over the years,” he said. “