An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring MICHELLE GUTIERREZ, RN, OCN [OKLAHOMA CANCER SPECIALISTS AND RESEARCH INSTITUTE, TULSA, OKLAHOMA]
DMichelle Gutierrez, RN, OCN, and Bobbie Chew Bigby - PHOTOS BY ERIN GOODRICH
It had only been one day that I’d had my port in and my long hair cut to a short bob by the time I arrived to the chemo treatment lobby for the first time. I gripped my mother’s hand tightly, but the anxiety-induced nausea just would not go away. I, of course, feared the chemo and my reactions to it. But what frightened me even more was that I could not envision life after chemo — or whether that reality was even a possibility that I could allow myself to think about.
At 28 years old, I had just finished a graduate fellowship in Australia in the summer of 2015. Within a week of completing it, I felt a hard lump in my left breast and my world suddenly turned upside down. Every appointment seemed to hit me over the head with news that got worse. I was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer that had spread to a lymph node — and I was still far from home. My initial lumpectomy and axillary node clearance happened on the night of my graduation. But the surreal, ongoing sense of shock that blanketed me was soon replaced with an anxiousness about what was to follow, as I was urged to get home quickly to the United States for my next stages of treatment. My Aussie surgeon gave me a firm warning that, “Because you’re young and since the cancer is aggressive, you’re going to be hit with some of the hardest chemo they’ve got. Good luck.” With my medical records in hand and compression sleeves on my arms and legs, my mother and I boarded the Qantas flight back home to Oklahoma and buckled in for the journey ahead.
My first encounter with my chemo nurse, Michelle, was not memorable because of her warm self-introduction or the effort she put into making sure I was comfortable and calm as we started the pre-meds. Instead, it was her laughter. I am confident that everyone at the OCSRI clinic can attest to Michelle’s signature laugh and the way that it spreads sincere warmth, compassion and the capacity for finding joy in the midst of suffering and uncertainty. As soon as we began speaking with each other, we found endless common ground. “Where are you from?” I asked her. “Oh, I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia, but I’ve grown up in Oklahoma,” she replied. I answered with one word: “mapalé.” Her eyes widened like saucers and a huge smile spread across her face. Even though I’d never been to Colombia, I’d remembered learning this Colombian dance during my college studies and figured that it would register for her. We made a promise that when the day came for my final chemo infusion, we’d dance mapalé to celebrate.
Michelle had an artful way of keeping me tranquil with her humorous stories while also helping my mother channel her worrying energies into helpful activities. While my mom spooned ice chips into my mouth, Michelle kept me chuckling as she slowly pumped the red tubes of doxorubicin into my port, checking with each couple of milliliters that all was progressing smoothly. I watched the red chemo travel upward through the tubes, and reflected how lifesaving treatment could only happen by being pumped with toxins — a true irony, but one that I trusted Michelle with fully.
The beauty of Michelle’s down-to-earth nature and humor is that it in no way hides, minimizes or distorts the seriousness of the situations going on in the treatment room. On the first day of my new paclitaxel chemo treatment, she eased gently from our laughter-filled conversation into a firm, concerned tone, informing me that peripheral neuropathy could be a temporary or permanent side effect from treatment. She wanted to make sure I was aware and psychologically prepared for this reality, but also to put things into perspective. We both agreed that we’d take life over the possibility of a couple of numb toes any day! Given how attuned Michelle is to those she is caring for, I have seen her move within seconds from attending to one patient to immediately bringing additional oxygen to another patient at the first sign of discomfort. She has an awesome ability to get her job done well and quickly while helping patients to realistically confront the fear, anger and vulnerability that so often accompanies cancer and is brought into the treatment room. Michelle helps us to find the cracks in the negative emotions that are so consuming. With her careful, optimistic approach, she helps us to transform the energy fueling our fears into the energy that must go toward our healing.
Every single day, Michelle goes above and beyond her role as a chemo nurse for so many people. Her hard work ensures that all patients are given their lifesaving treatment, but her passion and commitment to healing means that she makes the extra effort to ensure that her patients are well in body and mind. Michelle could see that, when I entered the chemo room, I was not only adapting to the harsh treatments, but was struggling to wrap my mind around the raw, hurtful implications of cancer and what it meant for my fertility and womanhood, not to mention my lifespan and goals. In response to my sense of bewilderment and the emotional numbness that had begun to set in, Michelle was the first person in my care team to introduce me to other young women fighting cancer. She was always open to talking with me for as long as I needed about the difficulties of having childbearing options taken away in the blink of an eye. And she consistently reminded me of all the different doors that were still open, still waiting for me once treatment finished. It was through our conversations that I became inspired to use both my medical experiences and Spanish language skills to become a multilingual medical interpreter. Now, one year later and cancer-free, I have just finished my certificate course for Spanish medical interpreting this month, and am looking forward to opportunities to help others.
But the first thing I had to look forward to was the promise of mapalé on that final day of chemo. And you can bet that we lit up the treatment floor with dance!