An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring Sharon O’Connell Welch, RN, OCN [ UPMC Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ]
Diane Makrinos and Sharon O’Connell Welch, RN, OCN PHOTO BY KATHRYN HYSLOP
In 2011, I was blindsided by a diagnosis of stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer. What followed was a whirlwind of doctors, scans, tests and appointments. I was frightened and dazed by the speed at which I went from being a healthy woman to a patient with cancer getting chemotherapy. I grasped at any rays of hope. I needed to know that statistics could be beat. That’s when I met an amazing oncology nurse, Sharon Welch.
Sharon was not the original nurse assigned to me, but from the first chemotherapy session, she always stopped by to check on me. She helped me to understand that one gets breast cancer from a combination of factors and helped me realize that this diagnosis wasn’t my fault. We found we had a lot of the same interests in books, items in the news, our children, places we had lived or traveled to and just life in general. As my chemo regimen progressed, I found that instead of dreading each session, I looked forward to a visit with Sharon. It was like going to see a good friend. She would brighten my spirits by telling me funny stories of her children or asking me to tell her about mine. She helped make chemotherapy tolerable.
I admired the oncology nurses and loved how they helped each other with all of the patients, how they worked as a unit, how kind they were to all. However, I came to truly cherish Sharon’s caring, helpful and witty ways. She listened to my concerns and complaints, and would try to find a solution. There were many side effects from the drugs, and she shared what worked for others with the same problems. She encouraged me to exercise, citing facts about how it was helpful during and after treatment. When I was feeling especially low, she was always there with a hug. The breast surgeon installed a port in my arm to make getting the chemo drugs easier. It was tricky for the nurses to access because it tended to twist. There were many times that a nurse or IV team took several tries to access the port. Sharon was always able to get the needle in the port the first time, every time. She was calm and methodical in her approach, and she showed the other nurses how to stabilize the port for a successful needle insertion.
Although I have beaten many “statistics,” over the past four-and-a-half years my cancer has progressed. I have now been through countless therapies. With each new start, Sharon printed out new medicine information not only from the primary health care website, but also from a second website that she felt had a better explanation. When my oncologist prescribed a new oral chemotherapy that held great promise for me, Sharon filled out all of the right forms and was on the phone with the insurance company jumping through hoops to get approval for me. Within two hours she had the approval — a process that usually takes weeks. Sharon knew the ins and outs of it, and got it done. The specialty pharmacy got the order that day, and I was able to start the new drug just two days later.
There are also the day-to-day complications. If I’ve forgotten to ask the doctor a question, Sharon will note it and get back to me with an answer. She brings me warm blankets and cold water. She coordinates schedules, arranging times and dates, so I can spend less time dealing with cancer and more time with my family. She encourages me to do the things I love to do when I feel well and to take it easy when I hit my limits. Sharon comes in early and stays late so that she can complete her work without rushing her patients.
In my mind, the clock is always ticking, and I find it difficult to talk to my loved ones about dying without causing them more pain. This idea looms with a certainty, and I have so many questions. Sharon has not backed away when I have asked her about dying. She understands my need to know what comes next, when will I know enough is enough and how to speak up when it becomes too much. The peace she has given me is priceless.
Nursing isn’t just a job to Sharon. She has a passion for learning new ideas and techniques. She wants to understand what’s happening and why. Then, she applies each new lesson learned to benefit her patients. She continues her schooling and is always open to discuss articles I bring her about new treatments or discoveries. Sharon has an anecdote, story or suggestion for almost any situation to make you laugh, understand or find a solution. She is quick, efficient, smiling, funny, kind and caring. Too good to be true? You would think, but I am convinced there are angels on earth, and Sharon Welch is one of them.