Reaching New Heights: From Cancer Survivor to Becoming the First PA in Space
Hayley Arceneaux Represents ‘Hope’ as First PA on Historic Flight to Space
By Paulette Bleam, MBA
September 16, 2021
Hayley Arceneaux, PA-C, made history September 15 by becoming the first PA, youngest American, first pediatric cancer survivor, and first person with a prosthetic body part to visit space.
She served as the medical officer on the world’s first all-civilian space flight, circling the Earth for three days on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as part of the “Inspiration4” mission. She and three other crew members traveled farther into space than any human has gone in more than a dozen years.
Arceneaux believed she had fulfilled her lifelong dream when she was hired last year at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, nearly two decades after undergoing treatment there as a bone cancer patient.
But in early January, Arceneaux, who specializes in pediatric oncology and works inpatient with children fighting leukemia and lymphoma, received a call from St. Jude officials, presenting her with an extraordinary opportunity: to become an astronaut in support of a fundraiser for St. Jude with a goal of $200 million.
Shocked by the question, the 29-year-old first asked if they were serious, and then immediately gave a resounding “yes!” They suggested she take some time and talk to family, so she called her mother to share the news.
She said to her mom, “I’m going to be the first PA in space! This is going to be so great for PAs!”
After her mother agreed she shouldn’t pass up the opportunity, she called her brother and sister-in-law, who are both aerospace engineers, and reassured her about the safety of space travel. Within a few hours, she called St. Jude to confirm her decision.
This flight is led by tech entrepreneur and benefactor Jared Isaacman, a 38-year-old billionaire and CEO of Shift4Payments who donated two spots to St. Jude, including Arceneaux’s. The mission represents four pillars: Leadership, Generosity, Prosperity, and Hope: the seat Arceneaux occupies.
Journey to St. Jude comes full circle
Arceneaux grew up in St. Francisville, Louisiana, outside of Baton Rouge. At age 10, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and spent a year as a patient at St. Jude undergoing chemotherapy and surgery that resulted in metal rods replacing a portion of her bones in her left leg.
Arceneaux said her family never received a bill for her cancer treatment, which included housing, food, and transportation, which she estimates was in the millions. She remembers it as a “magical place” for creating an environment that celebrates life and lets kids be kids, despite their struggles.
“When I was going through treatments, my friends and I would pull pranks on the staff,” she said. “When I was getting chemo and I was admitted for chemo, one of my friends and I would put on these dance shows and we would make the staff come watch us dance.”
Arceneaux said that year was the most important year of her life and experiencing cancer made her the PA she is today. She also realized the impact healthcare providers have on patients, exemplified by the bonds she had formed with her medical providers.
“St. Jude was this incredibly hopeful, uplifting environment, and I really felt like the staff was my family. When the doctor told me that my scans were clear and that I could go home at the end of treatment, I’d cry because I didn’t want to leave,” she said. “I think that feeling of not wanting to leave has just stayed with me my whole life. All I’ve ever known is that I wanted to work at St. Jude.”
She wasn’t sure which career path she wanted to pursue and debated between nurse, doctor, dietician, child life specialist, researcher, and fundraiser.
Her mother suggested the PA profession and while shadowing doctors and PAs, Arceneaux quickly realized becoming a PA would be a better fit due to more patient contact and a better work-life balance.
“Seeing how (advanced practice providers) APPs are used at St. Jude, that’s the role I wanted to be in, with more patient contact than an MD,” she said.
She attended Southeastern Louisiana University for undergrad, where she majored in Spanish and minored in biology while taking pre-PA classes and then graduated from PA school at LSU Health Shreveport Physician Assistant Program.
While she was in PA school, she applied to work at St. Jude, but didn’t get an interview. She knew she needed more experience and was surprised to find she loved her ER rotation, which led her to specialize in emergency medicine in Baton Rouge for three and a half years before getting her dream job at St. Jude, where she has been since April 2020.
“I love being a PA, and I work with the bravest kids in the whole world and I just get inspired daily by them,” she said. “I have the best job.”
Ask me whatever you want and I’ll tell the truth
Arceneaux remembers going through cancer and feeling encouraged after meeting others who had faced similar treatment and went on to live a normal life. She now shares her childhood story to connect with patients, especially those who are newly diagnosed.
“I tell the kids, ‘you know, I know what you’re going through, and I know how scary and overwhelming this is, but this experience is going to make you who you are and it’s going to make you stronger,’” she said. “I tell the kids they can ask me whatever they want and I’ll tell them the truth.”
Training for space and connecting with patients
The mission crew underwent rigorous astronaut training, which consisted of spending time in space suits and getting acquainted with the simulator and the centrifuge, which she says was the “ultimate test” for motion sickness. She also spent time preparing for any in-space emergencies that could arise and reacquainted herself with procedures she doesn’t typically practice in her specialty – such as starting an IV – in order to practice on Earth instead of in zero gravity.
“Hopefully I won’t have to be a PA in space,” she said. “Hopefully I can just be an astronaut.”
Other than orbiting around Earth and potentially conducting science experiments, she was most excited about connecting with St. Jude patients through a video call.
“Kids are so visual that I think getting to actually show them what their future can look like and what they’re capable of is going to mean a lot to them and they’re going to have fun with it,” she said. “Also, it would mean so much to me to get to share this with them.”
Arceneaux has always been adventurous and describes travel as her favorite hobby. She has visited 21 countries and has a goal of traveling to all seven continents – and can now add “space” to her passport.
“I never thought space would be on that list, but it fits,” she said. “It’s pretty on brand that this is something I’d want to do.”
But for now, she’s thrilled to represent the PA profession in space.
“I definitely want to make PAs proud and be a good representation of PAs in space,” she said. “And you know, I’m the first one, but I don’t think I’m going to be the last.”
If you’d like to learn more or donate toward this fundraiser, please visit Stjude.org/inspiration4.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in March 2021 and has since been updated.
Paulette Bleam, MBA, is AAPA’s senior manager of social media. She can be reached at [email protected].