An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring VICTORIA FENSTERMAKER, RN, AAS [ROSWELL PARK CANCER INSTITUTE, BUFFALO, NEW YORK]
Blake Peterson and Victoria Fenstermaker, RN, AAS - PHOTOS BY BRIDGET ROCHELLE PHOTOGRAPHY
A good nurse cares for the whole patient, administering medicine and caring for the patient under the direction of physicians who set a course of treatment. A great nurse not only does that, but also cares for the whole family, making sure not only that the patient is comfortable, but that each family member has his or her own needs met and feels cared for, as well. However, a truly remarkable nurse puts her duties in the intensive care unit of one of the leading cancer hospitals in the country on hold, if only for a moment, in order to come out to the waiting room to comfort the spouse of her patient who has just fainted after receiving the news that no one wants to receive. Let me explain why Victoria Fenstermaker is truly a remarkable nurse.
This past May, my father, Jeffrey Peterson, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. His diagnosis came as a surprise to everyone when he went to the emergency room in Jamestown, New York, for severe joint pain and bloodwork pointed to an acute leukemia. As soon as a room was available, he was sent directly to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, where he was started on a 24-hour chemotherapy treatment for seven straight days. The treatment was intended to set him up to be in a good position to be a recipient of a bone marrow transplant, but an infection landed him in the ICU. It was there where we first met Vicki Fenstermaker. It was Vicki who originally instructed my dad to call home before he was put into a medically induced coma so that he could rest and try to fight his infection. We didn’t know it at the time, but that quick phone call was the last time my mom would get to talk to my dad, so that phone call is now cherished.
When I first met Vicki on the floor of the ICU, she was working tirelessly and meticulously to stay on top of nearly a dozen IV solution bags of medication — the mark of a good nurse. Over the course of the next week, my whole family was camped out in the waiting room of the ICU. We became acquainted with many others who had family members in the unit, we became familiar with staring out the windows at the Buffalo skyline for hours and we became anxious whenever the waiting room phone would ring, summoning someone into the ICU. Throughout that week, we would occasionally go in to be with my dad. I was quite quiet throughout that whole week, and Vicki met me where I was.
When I would be in with my dad, she would pop in occasionally, silently mouthing the words, “Are you OK?” or “Do you need anything?” She knew how to meet each family member with exactly what we needed throughout that week. Vicki and my mom exchanged life stories, and she provided my mom with an update on a little improvement or change each day that gave my mom enough encouragement to get through the day — the sign of a great nurse.
Most people think that the characteristic that makes nurses exemplary is that they provide excellent care for their patients or they have a keen eye with which they discover something that was previously overlooked by the physicians that is detrimental in nursing their patient back to health. Although Vicki possesses these qualities, our story does not have a fairytale ending. On June 5, after my dad had spent a week in a coma and on life support in the ICU, it was time to “make some decisions.” His kidneys were beginning to shut down, he was losing circulation in his legs, a feeding tube was unsuccessful and he was retaining nearly all the fluid that was being pumped into him. On top of all that, the chemotherapy was not nearly as successful as the oncologists had hoped, and he was in no condition to receive a bone marrow transplant. When we got the news that it was time to make decisions, the weight of the situation got the better of my mom, and she passed out. Doctors, nurses and volunteers rushed out of the ICU to care for my mother momentarily as she regained consciousness. Vicki was there once again, meeting us where we were and even pep-talking my mom after she had regained consciousness — the mark of a truly remarkable nurse.
As we made the decision to withdraw care, Vicki was, once again, with us every step of the way. She attended conferences that my family had with the leukemia team, both literally and figuratively holding our hands along the way. When it came time to remove the life support machines, she did so faithfully and even beautifully, making my dad as comfortable as possible as he passed on. When he finally passed, Vicki was the one to close his eyes and declare a time of death. Not a moment after he passed, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” came on the radio that was playing. We now consider this song an anthem of my father, and whenever it plays, we are reminded that he is looking over us.
You share a special bond with the people that you meet in the ICU. My family is incredibly grateful to Victoria Fenstermaker’s service to not only my father and my family, but to every patient that she works with in the ICU at Roswell Park.