An Extraordinary Healers essay honoring Mary L. McKenney, BSN, MSN, NP [Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts]
Mary L. McKenney, BSN, MSN, NP -- PHOTO BY DEANNA DIMARZIO
My entry into the universe of cancer was sudden, shocking, incomprehensible and amplified with crises. In the winter of 2012, for what I assumed was benign though chronic shoulder and lower back pain, I consulted my primary care physician and a physiatrist for a diagnosis and pain relief. After pursuing several recommended treatments that proved to be ineffective, I questioned the preliminary diagnoses of arthritis and a bulging spinal disc. With a more thorough analysis of my blood values, bone marrow aspirate, skeletal survey and a genetic profile, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in August 2012.
Within two weeks of receiving this stunning diagnosis, replete with infinite ambiguity and fear, I was informed that I had a pathologic pelvic fracture that required emergency surgery. If I declined surgery, my orthopedic surgeon boldly stated that I would die in less than a year. I returned home four days post-surgery, and struggled with being nonambulatory and extremely limited in performing activities of daily living.
Two weeks later, I spiked a fever and was transported to the ER, and ultimately admitted to the hospital with an unspecified infection. These emergencies delayed the beginning of my entry into an urgently needed clinical trial at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) in Boston, and these delays only accentuated my feelings of fear and hopelessness.
In October 2012, my multipronged treatment began at the DFCI under the oversight and management of a team composed of an oncologist, clinical and research nurses, and a chemotherapy infusion nurse. It was at this time that I was introduced to my clinical nurse, Mary McKenney.
Mary possesses the attributes one would expect from an oncology nurse, but she is so much more, both as a person and a professional. Words that convey her uniqueness and characterize the ways in which she has cared for me over the past 28 months include: empathetic, inquisitive, curious, thorough, thoughtful, detailed, responsive, erudite and enlightening.
Mary has a deep knowledge and understanding of multiple myeloma, and she has helped me in a quiet but confident manner to navigate the stormy waters of this incurable disease. She has been incredibly informative in my understanding of the disease, its progression, and the ways in which I can monitor the effects of chemotherapy agents received over time. She probes for both expected and unexpected side effects of drugs, and without hesitation links me with other physicians and resources to ensure the implementation of a comprehensive treatment plan.
In addition to being an insightful and thorough oncology nurse, she has cared for me, guided me and encouraged me in ways that extend far beyond the words identified above. As an illustration, after my two hospitalizations in September 2012, she offered comforting assurances that my chemotherapy treatments were arranged and would begin as soon as I could safely travel to DFCI. Phone calls and emails were responded to immediately, which provided me with a blanket of security that recovery, hope and optimism were a critical part of my future, and that she would ensure that they would be ever-present throughout my care.After completing eight months of chemotherapy, my oncologist determined that I needed an autologous stem cell transplant. Again, to counter my unfamiliarity and concern about this procedure, Mary provided valuable descriptive information and identified links to websites that offered important details about the procedure, its safety and its potential benefits. The procedure required a 20-day hospitalization, and Mary took the time to visit me even though I was not located within the DFCI environment. Again, true to her character, she was informative, optimistic and quite simply, pleasantly sociable, and I deeply appreciated that she committed her own personal time to ensure my well-being.
I am currently participating in my fourth clinical trial, and Mary continues to serve as my primary clinical nurse. Because my cancer is a metastasized disease, the word “cure” is not on the table. Containment and control are the guide words for my disease and treatment, and despite the enormous ambiguity and fear that accompanies this approach, Mary provides a solid sense of stability and continuity that makes the future less ominous. She introduces a powerful psychological component into my treatment that creates a strong synergy with the chemotherapy component of my treatment. Either component alone would be an incomplete and less effective approach to my treatment plan.
I am blessed to have met an individual like Mary whose competency, compassion, and quiet temperament have been central to my recovery. She assumes a prominent place in planning for my future, and I have enormous trust and confidence in her that she will guide me through this terrible disease.
Mary is truly a gifted individual, both as an oncology nurse as well as a most generous and caring person. In my opinion, she is unique and distinguished among her peers, and her influence and impact on me is both powerful and durable. Mary has created an indelible memory for me, for which I am deeply grateful.