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The Unsung Hero

I am a 13-year breast cancer survivor who has had the honor of observing and being cared for by the unsung hero and angel on earth, Kathy Ammirata.
BY Marjorie Gelber
PUBLISHED June 11, 2015
I AM NOT A WRITER or even a persuasive person, but I have gotten paid most of my professional career as an observer and listener; first as a school counselor, and, most recently, for more than 11 years, as a small group facilitator at Gilda’s Club South Florida. More importantly for the task at hand, I am also a 13-year breast cancer survivor who has had the honor of observing and being cared for by the unsung hero and angel on earth, Kathy Ammirata. 

IN MY CAPACITY as a facilitator in a cancer support community, I have heard countless stories about the skills of many wonderful oncology nurses as the members of Gilda’s Club deal with all different kinds of cancer at an extensive number of hospitals and doctors’ offices. I am amazed at the amount of compassion shown by these dedicated individuals. Yet, it always makes me appreciate how lucky I am to have Kathy for my own care.

PHOTO BY JEFF REMAS

Kathy Ammirata, RN, OCN, with Marjorie Gelber [right]

I first met her in 2000 when I was initially diagnosed, and I was truly fortunate that she was working for my oncologist, Dr. Elizabeth Tan-Chiu, when I had my first recurrence in 2008. I have been receiving Herceptin infusions every three weeks since then, and am now on my third round of chemotherapy under Kathy’s most compassionate and attentive eyes.

Why do I feel so strongly that Kathy is extraordinary? Not only is she the model of efficiency, hard work and tireless energy, but I have watched her over the years working kindly and patiently with all types of patients—from women in clinical trials who are worried about being “guinea pigs” to others who are angry at the world about their diagnosis, as well as those who are seriously depressed and have given up hope. Kathy approaches each of them as if they are her only patients. She’ll look them in the eyes, hold their hands and talk compassionately with sincere “you-can-do-this” encouragement, even as they vent their frustrations.

It never ceases to impress upon me how even the most agitated patient will calm down after only a few minutes with Kathy, as she always seems to find just the right words with each of them. Yet, she is so humble! Even when being showered with gratitude, I have seen her smile, shrug her shoulders and say, “I’m just doing my job.” And what a job she does. In all of the 13 years I’ve known her, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her take a lunch break. I’ve joked with her that I think she’s like the Energizer Bunny in sneakers and probably couldn’t be more efficient if she wore roller skates instead!

I have seen her on numerous occasions work long after 5 p.m., making sure everyone is comfortable and well taken care of, even running after a patient who had left something behind. What amazes me even more is that after giving 110 percent during her full-time oncology nursing job with Dr. Tan-Chiu, she goes home every night to care for her wheelchair-bound adult son, then comes back to work each day with renewed sense of purpose and dedication.

I am also impressed that Kathy has such an excellent memory. She always takes the time to ask her patients about family members, and not just “How’s your daughter?” but “How is Melanie doing in college?”

She is knowledgeable and up-to-date about an extensive amount of resources available for each patient. For example, she informs her patients about all the free programs offered by the American Cancer Society for wigs, make-up consultations and rides to treatment, and even keeps hats, scarves and wigs, as well as books, videos, reading materials and other donated items available in the chemo room for the convenience of her patients.

I have observed her numerous times as she talks with kindness and the utmost patience, especially as she gently explains (for probably the millionth time over the course of her career) what each “newbie” to chemotherapy might expect, sprinkling in suggested do’s and don’ts, as well as helpful hints that the printed drug company literature might not include, in a way that somehow causes the “deer in the headlights” look to disappear from a woman’s face.

In fact, when I recently found out from Dr. Tan-Chiu that my breast cancer had recurred for the second time and I needed chemotherapy once again, I went right over to Kathy, who gave me a gentle, warm hug that was exactly what I needed. Sensing immediately that I did not want to dwell in “Pity City,” Kathy instantly switched into her mode of “OK, this is what we need to do” and gave me her wonderful pep talk, as well as handing me the appropriate literature for me to take home and read about the chemotherapy drug I would be receiving.

My numerous questions came next and, as always, Kathy waited patiently as I wrote everything down. Before she went to take care of another patient, she trotted over to the nearby computer to reserve the appointments times that would best fit my schedule.

In her free time, Kathy participates in the Broward County Oncology Nursing Society and even asked me to attend one of their monthly meetings as someone who inspires others. I was very proud to stand up in front of all the other oncology nurses and brag about Kathy and not myself! After all the speeches were over, I was surprised how many other guests came over to me to share their admiration for Kathy, too.

It is my utmost pleasure to recommend Kathy Ammirata as the oncology nurse whose compassion, expertise and helpfulness has made all the difference in my cancer journey, as well as in the lives of many others!
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