Surprise birthday party turns young patient’s weekly clinic visit into cause for celebration

Christa Romero had battled Crohn's disease for nearly a decade before her surgery to remove her colon. Throughout her time as a patient, she's grown close with her surgeon and Mayo care team — so close, in fact, the team threw her a surprise birthday party last month while she was recovering.

Christa Romero knows her way around healthcare facilities. She was diagnosed with Crohn's disease in 2012, at the age of 10.

She and her family lived in Tucson, Arizona, at the time. Over the next several years, she had frequent hospital visits due to flare-ups in her disease.

In 2021, the Romeros relocated to Phoenix. When Christa's condition worsened, her mom suggested they seek care at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.

"We went to the Emergency Room, and they admitted me right away, realizing the danger I was in," Christa says.

It was there she met David Etzioni, M.D., who she now admiringly refers to as "the best surgeon she's ever met."

Life-changing meeting and surgery

Christa vividly remembers her first meeting with Dr. Etzioni.  

"The first time he came into the room, he directly talked to me," Christa says. "He really wanted to hear from me and cared about what I thought."

Christa had spent much of her life in hospitals and pediatric care. She found Dr. Etzioni's approach to be different and refreshing.

After a thorough examination, Dr. Etzioni informed Christa that her colon was severely damaged. He recommended removal of her colon and a permanent ostomy bag.

"I had a feeling that I would need to have this procedure at some point in my life, and I was in such pain that I was ready for it," Christa says.

The first time he came into the room, he directly talked to me. He really wanted to hear from me and cared about what I thought.

Christa Romero

Before the surgery took place, Dr. Etzioni went the extra mile to make sure Christa's family felt comfortable with the procedure.

"I remember he met with my dad outside in the waiting room. My dad told him how much it meant to him, as a father, to meet the man doing this life-changing surgery on his daughter," Christa recalls. "Ever since the beginning, he's been so caring like that."

With everyone informed and ready to proceed, Christa underwent the surgery. She recovered well from surgery and has continued her care with Mayo since then.           

Growing close to her care team

About six months ago, Christa experienced a complication that brought her into the surgery clinic every week for wound care.

During those weekly visits, Christa formed a close bond with her care team, which includes nurse practitioner Jessica Swanson, nurses Jennifer Carty and Allison Sieck, and medical assistant Linda Purinton. Christa appreciates the caring nature of her team and that they share personal stories with her.

Her relationship with Dr. Etzioni has also grown.  

For a brief moment, the focus shifted away from Christa's illness, and she could simply enjoy the company of her care team and revel in the celebration of her life.

Jessica Swanson

"We are both music buffs, so we will exchange songs at my appointments, and the next week we will tell each other what we thought of the songs," Christa says.

Christa says her care team always tells her they are thinking of her, and a recent surprise gesture proved that it's true.   

An unexpected birthday surprise

Christa's birthday lands on Cinco de Mayo, and Swanson had the idea to throw Christa a surprise 22nd birthday party after her scheduled clinic visit on May 3.

Swanson says the idea stemmed from Mayo Clinic's unwavering commitment to putting patients' needs first.

"We understand that battling an illness can be emotionally and physically draining, and we strive to provide not only exceptional medical care, but also a supportive and compassionate environment that promotes healing and well-being," Swanson says. "It was my hope that this gesture would serve as a reminder that she is not alone in her journey and that we are all here to support her every step of the way."

Sieck worked with Christa's mom on the details, and the party went off without a hitch. After Christa's appointment, Sieck told Christa she wanted to show her an award she had received.

Christa unsuspectingly followed Sieck to a conference room. When the door opened, her team yelled, "Surprise!"

Metallica, one of Christa and Dr. Etzioni's favorite bands, played in the background. Dr. Etzioni put together the playlist himself, complete with songs they had shared with each other.  

"The look of pure delight on Christa and her parents' faces was priceless," Swanson says. "For a brief moment, the focus shifted away from Christa's illness, and she could simply enjoy the company of her care team and revel in the celebration of her life."

There also were some joyful tears.

For the next hour, Christa, her parents and members of the care team enjoyed chips and salsa, mocktails and cake, while exchanging stories and memories. The team also gave Christa a gift card to her favorite restaurant.

"It meant so much to me," Christa says. "For them to even think about doing that is so sweet. It showed me how much they care and really do think about me."

The celebration was followed by more good news, which came just a few weeks later. Christa no longer needs wound care, and her next appointment will be in two months.

While she will miss seeing her care team as regularly as she had been, Christa says she is grateful for the exceptional care that has helped her get better.