Beginning to End

CURE, Summer 2010, Volume 9, Issue 2

Winning Essay: CURE’s 2010 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing

She was there in the beginning.

The first day of chemo. While my daughter and I were veterans of the Methodist Estabrook Cancer Center, December 27, 2006, marked the start of full-scale chemo and radiation. My beautiful girl was no longer in remission from adrenal cortical carcinoma, but in the fight for her life. ACC is rare, aggressive, and often fatal within five years.

We remembered the bewildered feeling in 2004, right after Megan’s college graduation, when we learned she had cancer. However, 18 months of glorious remission and Megan’s youthful optimism had lulled us into a state that no longer imagined the worst. Regretfully, our 2006 fall lineup included adrenal cancer that had metastasized to three abdominal locations, the removal of her left kidney, and a laminectomy to remove a paralyzing spinal tumor. The news that cancer had spread to Megan’s lungs came just in time for Christmas. The worst was upon us.

I was always resolute in knowing Megan was receiving the best medical care imaginable. After all, Dr. Robert Langdon was not only her oncologist but also our next-door neighbor and the father of six girls. He loved my girl like his own. I never doubted that every decision, including his selection of Dorothy Wahrman as Megan’s chemo nurse, would be the best.

My intuition did not disappoint. In our first meeting with Dorothy, Megan sat in what would become her all-too-familiar leather recliner; I sat as close as possible to her. We were so afraid. Dorothy pulled up a rolling stool and took us from fear to familiar—from feeling forgotten by God to a new family of health care professionals. She wheeled right into our hearts, and the stack of printed material she presented seemed unimportant. I knew she would be the guide and translator for the uncertain days ahead.

She was there in the middle.

Chemo became routine, and we found a new normal. Our daily visits to the cancer center included a bag loaded with one of her “woobies” (code for a favorite blanket) and a laptop for surfing to keep Megan up to date on the latest fashions. Dorothy oversaw the complicated chemo protocol, a $10,000-a-month clinical trial, while chatting with my girl about the latest star gossip and delivering “Puppy Chow” snacks prepared the night before.

She would polish off moments by pulling the woobie up over Megan’s shoulders, making sure she wasn’t cold. Dorothy would ask Megan, “Do I cut my hair short or not?” and my hairless girl would tell Dorothy how fabulous a new “do” would be in her convertible with the top down and a breeze blowing through her hair. Oh, how Megan wanted hair. And, oh, how she loved Dorothy.

Dorothy was also part of the magnificent team that orchestrated Megan’s dream night with Justin Timberlake. Megan’s oncology team became her personal Make-A-Wish Foundation and gave her the night of her life. Megan said, “I’d rather have 30 minutes of wonderful than a lifetime of nothing special.” The team delivered not only the superstar but also his personal trainer, Jason, who escorted Megan for the evening.

It was a once-upon-a-time evening, but since life is not always storybook, Dorothy was also there when Megan’s white blood counts were at deadly levels. She was there before hospice, when the pain was so severe we would be at the cancer center door when they opened for the next blast of morphine. She was there when the clinical trial succeeded, there when it failed, and there when the sun was shining. She was also there for a sobbing mom waiting for valet parking in the rain without an umbrella because the parking garage was under construction.

She was there in the end.

On March 17, 2008, Megan was moved from home to Josie Harper Hospice House. On March 21, Good Friday, the hospice team scrambled for solutions to manage Megan’s excruciating pain. Cancer seized my daughter’s body; the spinal tumors left her in agony. Even with staggering levels of narcotics, pain management was nearly impossible. God have mercy.

Mid-morning on Good Friday, Dorothy left her oncology station to drive to Hospice House to see Megan for the last time. Dorothy just knew to come.

Dorothy later wrote me in an e-mail: “I truly cannot say why I chose to go see Megan on Good Friday. Something inside me drew me there that day. I guess I knew that things were bad and Megan’s time on earth was short. … When I arrived I saw and felt the suffering of Megan and her family and wished there was something more I could do for all of them. I could only pray that God would give them all the strength that they would need.”

What Dorothy didn’t know was that paperwork was in motion to place Megan into a drug-induced sleep to manage her erratic pain. We were just hours away from our last words with my girl. How did Dorothy know right when to come? I must say that in all my months with this most remarkable woman, her ability to sense the every need of patient and family was the most beautiful and natural part of her character.

I can still see Dorothy, sitting on the edge of Megan’s bed, boldly swooping my beautiful girl into her arms and tenderly cradling her frail frame. So motherly in her stature, it appeared she was pressing Megan tightly into her bosom, but in reality she was pressing my girl into her heart for the last time.

Dorothy silently held Megan’s hand and then told her goodbye. My daughter was not healed in any physical way, but Dorothy Wahrman gave us peace by holding our hand from beginning to end. That’s what makes her an extra­ordinary healer.

So motherly in her stature, it appeared she was pressing Megan tightly into her bosom, but in reality she was pressing my girl into her heart for the last time.