An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring Paula Anastasia, RN, MN, AOCN [Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California]
Brandi Brethour and Paula Anastasia, RN, MN, AOCN - PHOTO BY ANGELA IZZO
Paula Anastasia is truly an extraordinary woman and healer. She works with a subset of patients who aren’t known for having very good odds after diagnosis, as her specialty is gynecologic oncology, and she brings joy into their lives. No matter how long the day, or how tough the odds, Paula always has a smile, a story, a joke, a hug, a way to look on the bright side. She spends countless hours and precious minutes comforting patients and their families. Remarkably, she does it all dancing backwards in really high heels.
I first had the good fortune to meet Paula in her capacity as a research nurse when I had finished my initial course of chemotherapy. Much to my dismay, my doctor presented me with the option of joining a clinical trial, which incorporated up to another year of chemotherapy treatments. Although Paula didn’t know me at all at that point, she graciously and patiently endured many questions and tears from a 34-year-old trying to make all the right moves to get her life back after a diagnosis of stage 3c ovarian cancer. She has a gift for making each patient know that they are loved and valued.
Ultimately, due to my personal circumstances, my follow-up care was moved to the doctor with whom Paula works most closely — and I am eternally grateful for all of the synergies that made this happen. When Paula became “my” nurse, I will never forget the day I had “assumed the position,” naked from the waist down, feet in the stirrups, a pretty common drill for gynecologic cancer patients. For some reason, Paula was not in the room and I was just about to panic (as I passionately detest these exams), when Paula slipped into the room, sashayed up to my head and grabbed my hand in the nick of time as the doctor began the exam — all the while, chit-chatting about life, travel plans, family, my cat, boys, anything to pass the time. She is the expert at chatting, making small talk, providing distractions as my doctor cares for me in many critical yet not so pleasant ways.
Paula is an extraordinary healer because she treats the whole woman. She reminds us that we aren’t dead and so we need to live! She is famous for giving talks on sexuality and intimacy after the cancer diagnosis, and has been known to travel 10 hours in a day to give a one-hour speech on the topic. Her speeches are just as wonderful and inspiring as she is.
She befriends her patients and reminds them that they are wonderful human beings with much to offer the world. On countless occasions, I have opened my mailbox and found a sweet and encouraging note from Paula. I can text her or call her on her personal cell phone if I have a question or need to talk. There is no one who celebrates a survivor’s birthday more colorfully than Paula. I don’t know how she does it, but she finds room in her heart for each patient and their family members. A dear friend shared with me how Paula helped her mom through her illness and prepared the family for their impending loss. Her mom found so much joy in her relationship with this extraordinary woman, and my friend would often hear her laughing down the hall in her weekly phone conversations with Paula.
Paula has made her career her life’s work. In addition to treating patients, supporting her doctor Beth Karlan, MD, speaking to survivors and their loved ones and encouraging them to live life fully, Paula is a tireless supporter of the battle against ovarian cancer. She has raised thousands of dollars for medical research at Cedars-Sinai through the “Run for Her” event, the “Pink Party,” dance parties and many other events. She is so dedicated to the cause that, in 2014, she participated in “Run for Her” on both U.S. coasts — in Los Angeles and New York City — on her own dime and time. She is an extraordinary woman who has enriched the lives of so many.