The Legacy of a Pediatric Nurse


If you did use the pain scale or any of those textbooks, you were touched by a remarkable woman who died recently: Donna Lee Wong.

Donna Lee Wong: does that name sound familiar to you? Many nurses know they know the name but often have a hard time figuring out how or why.

Did you learn the Wong-Baker Faces pain scale when you were studying peds? Perhaps you use it now in your every day work life. Did you use any of her textbooks perhaps? Donna Lee Wong wrote the first edition of her 2,000-page pediatric nursing textbook, Nursing Care of Infants and Children, in 1979. She also wrote Essentials of Pediatric Nursing, Clinical Manual of Pediatric Nursing and Maternal Child Nursing Care.

If you did use the pain scale or any of those textbooks, you were touched by a remarkable woman who died recently — at the young age of 60. I used one of her texts when I was a student and, for some reason, I imagined her to be much older than she was. In fact, when I was writing something on the Wong-Baker pain scale a few months ago, I guess I imagined that Dr. Wong was no longer with us. So when I read of her death, my first reaction was that it was likely age. But 60 is not old and sadly and ironically, she died of leukemia. Her death from leukemia is ironic because that is what she was misdiagnosed with as a child. It was her experiences undergoing painful tests and procedures that led her to develop the children’s pain scale and to go on to write the textbooks used by thousands of nursing students over the years.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Rutgers University, Dr. Wong obtained her masters in nursing from UCLA and then followed with a PhD in child development from Oklahoma State University.

It was in 1980, when she arrived in Tulsa to work with children who had been severely burned, that she developed the Wong-Baker pain scale, along with child-life specialist Connie Baker. That pain scale is now used all over the world and has been adapted to meet the needs of many different populations.

I used to think that textbook writers were these great unreachable people who just knew so much more than anyone else. After all, when you’re studying something like nursing, your textbooks are inches thick and you often see the same names as the authors on many of your texts. They were demi-gods among the academics.

I recently learned otherwise. I was brought on board to help redo a nursing textbook and I will be listed as third author when it’s published in January 2009. And, I spoke with the first author a few times and she seems perfectly fine, approachable and — dare I say it – normal. Add to that, I am fine, approachable, fairly friendly and, well, we’ll leave the “normal” tagging to those who know me. And now, I’m also a textbook author. Somehow I doubt that many students will remember my name though – with a name like mine, it takes a heck of an effort to remember it sometimes.

So, here’s my glass of wine, raised to Dr. Wong and her work. To her dedication to helping children who are ill and to keeping healthy children healthy. And, despite the moaning and groaning about the textbooks that we had to buy and lug around, here’s to the authors and illustrators who take the time and make the effort to share their knowledge and skill with those of us who need to learn it. Without people like Dr. Wong, where would we be?

Rest in peace Dr. Wong.

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