An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring DONNA FISHER, NP [SARAH CANNON CANCER CENTER AT RESEARCH MEDICAL CENTER, KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI]
Danielle Burgess and Donna Fisher, NP - PHOTOS BY REBECCA CLAIR PHOTOGRAPHY
Even after 15 years of poking and prodding and “Is this tender?” questions … I’m modest. Colorectal cancer exposed me to some of the most uncomfortable and awkward situations of my life — and during my teenage years, at that. But it also introduced me to some of the most amazing, kindhearted people on the planet. One of them is my nurse, Donna Fisher. Despite the fact that she works in gynecologic oncology — one of the most immodest office appointments in my schedule — she is the nurse that has made me the most comfortable throughout my cancer journey. And she helps me laugh. A lot. With her, I forget I’m not wearing pants. And that is a pretty amazing feat.
As a 17-year-old kid who’d just been handed a stage 3 colorectal cancer diagnosis, I was shuffled from office to office as my parents scrambled to make life-altering decisions about my future. I didn’t have much say; I went where I was told. This included the OB-GYN’s office to address my future fertility issues and cancer risks. My first appointment in the doctor’s office, I sat sandwiched between my dark-haired 40-something parents while I admired the gray-haired ladies with hairsprayed perms filling the other seats in the waiting room. I wanted to disappear and hide. That is, until I met Donna.
With a smile on her face, she treated me not as a kid with cancer or just another patient. She cared about me. With two girls of her own that I couldn’t help but feel would be my adopted sisters if Donna could help it, I felt her motherly love pour into me in the midst of her professional nursing care.
When it was time for me to undergo surgeries, Donna was there helping me get through pre- and postoperative issues and side effects. She helped me know what to expect after a total hysterectomy and gave suggestions on estrogen options. As I coped with the side effects, she had suggestions on resources, products and tips that would ease any pain or discomfort. I’ll never forget walking out of her office with a Mary Poppins-style stuffed purse full of vaginal lubricants.
When I was diagnosed with Lynch syndrome, Donna was very informed and educated about the disease, ready for questions and on top of prevention strategies for me. She was open to working with my other doctors who managed the colorectal cancer side of things to make sure all of the tests were covered. A breath of fresh air, she collaborated across offices, disciplines and health systems, which was an enormous stress reliever for me.
When treatment slowed and a follow-up routine began, she zoned in on my emotional and mental health. She amazingly found nonthreatening ways to point it out when I wasn’t acting quite like myself, and encouraged me to get help when I was struggling to cope. Her encouragement helped me notice my own needs and to heal emotionally over the years. I sought out a counselor and joined a few support groups. While I never took medication, she talked with me about pros and cons, and made sure I knew she was available to help should I choose to pursue that option. Little did she know how helpful simply having someone notice my emotional state became to me.
She was one of the first people who gave me permission to not be OK. She’s also one of the only professionals with whom I’ve felt totally comfortable talking about my bowel movements, rectal exams, breast exams, reproductive organs, intimacy issues and more. “Off-subject” topics that usually make my face turn red and forehead sweat don’t seem so embarrassing when I’m with her. With Donna, I’m not just another patient with cancer, I’m a person. And somebody I think she happens to really like. I really like her too, which is why we both get excited when no other patient appointments are scheduled after mine. She spends the extra time catching up on life AND health with me, realizing that there’s more to me than cancer. She wants to know all about it. And I want to tell her.
There are no subjects off-limits and no body parts unexamined, which, despite my tendency for all things modest, I’m OK with. When it comes to Donna, I’m glad she goes there.