Easing the Way for Thousands of Patients With Cancer

Extraordinary Healer®Extraordinary Healer® Volume 17
Volume 17

In her 40 years as an oncology nurse and supervisor, Kerry O’Neil, B.S.N., RN, OCN, has eased the way for thousands of patients with cancer and their families

In fall 2022, a 40-year-old mother of three was brought into a City of Hope Orange County clinic where Kerry O’Neil, B.S.N., RN, OCN, is the nurse manager. Breast cancer had metas- tasized to the woman’s brain, leaving her blind. Kerry did not know this when she opened the curtain to check on the woman and ask how she was doing.

“Kerry, I’ve been listening for your voice,” said the woman, who was anxious and in pain. “I knew you were going to be here, and I just needed to hear your voice.” Sadly, the young mother later died just before Thanksgiving.

“It was very sad and that was hard,” Kerry said. “You know you can’t cure everybody, but you can help them. If you can make their journey a little bit lighter and a little bit easier for them, that’s what you need to focus on.

Kerry O’Neil, B.S.N., RN, OCN (left), wearing a blue dress and white blazer, smiles next to Cynthia Powers, D.N.P., M.S.N., RN, CPHQ (right), wearing a green dress and black blazer

"Kerry is constantly looking for ways to make connections among patients and ensure they do not feel alone in their journey," wrote Cynthia Powers, D.N.P., M.S.N., RN, CPHQ (right) of Kerry O’Neil, B.S.N., RN, OCN (left).

In her 40 years as an oncology nurse and supervisor, Kerry has eased the way for thousands of patients with cancer and their families. Patients remember her professional expertise, compassionate listening, comforting touch and calm demeanor — and all the ways big and small that she makes a difference in their lives.

Kerry exemplifies all of City of Hope’s values: compassion, service with a sense of urgency, integrity, intellectual curiosity, excellence and collaboration. Hundreds of patients provide feedback on her outstanding care.

Recently, Kerry was walking her dog, Maggie, when she was approached by a woman and her daughter. “You were my mom’s favorite nurse 30 years ago,” the woman said. Kerry quickly realized who the patient was; she had made Kerry a Christmas ornament. Kerry shared that she thought of the woman every year when she put the ornament on the tree.

The next time Kerry saw the woman and her daughter walking, she gave them the ornament. “And they just broke down in tears,” Kerry said, “They said they couldn’t believe I kept it. I said, ‘Of course. It meant a lot. That’s how she showed me that she appreciated me.’”

Reflecting on a career of medical excellence and extraordinary compassion, Kerry says her proudest moments have been when she could gain patients’ trust, educate them about their disease, advocate for their care and serve as a healer to ease their journey. Kerry is frequently the voice of her patients.

She remembers a quiet and stoic man with relapsed acute myeloid leukemia who could not bear to tell his wife he wanted to discontinue treatment. However, he trusted Kerry to explain the situation and his difficult choice. Kerry still vividly remembers the difficult conversation and the wife’s concern, especially since the couple had a very young daughter. Kerry’s calming demeanor helped everyone come to terms with the situation.

Ultimately, the patient was able to pass away at home, with his large extended family surrounding him and all at peace with his decision. Kerry has been successful in gaining patients’ trust, often bringing about extraordinary outcomes.

She is particularly proud of her care of a patient who had been thrown a curveball in a difficult situation. When Kerry first walked in the room, he was so upset he barely talked to her. However, Kerry convinced him and his wife that although the road through chemotherapy would be tough, they were “going for a cure.”

Months later — and after many difficult treatments — Kerry was proved right. The patient’s cancer was in remission, and the couple responded with a note, calling her “an angel sent from heaven.”

With her extraordinary talent for compassion and brilliant expertise, it might seem Kerry was destined for oncology nursing. However, as she tells the story, she found this specialty almost by chance. She says she followed a group of Fitchburg State University nursing school peers to California from Massachusetts soon after graduation and quickly found a job.

“They asked me to choose a medical unit, and I was caught off guard until I remembered that oncology was always my toughest class, so I said, ‘Put me in oncology. Maybe I’ll learn something.’” Of course, Kerry did more than learn something. She excelled.

She says oncology is exciting to her because she enjoys the challenges of understanding nearly every system of the human body. And most of all, she believes that patients with cancer truly appreciate the compassionate care and the connection they build with their nursing team.

She says that joining the infusion team at City of Hope Newport Beach as a nursing manager two years ago was a natural fit, but she made one stipulation upon accepting a managerial role — she still wanted time to care for patients.

Kerry is constantly looking for ways to make connections among patients and ensure they do not feel alone in their journey. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when a group of patients with multiple myeloma came to City of Hope Newport Beach Fashion Island to receive infusions, Kerry introduced them to one another and arranged to have their infusion chairs turned into a circle so they could talk.

The camaraderie and deep friendships among the “Multiple Myeloma Squad” are still going strong. The group dine at each other’s houses and plan fundraising events. For Kerry, accommodating and even laughing with the group at times are all part of the exceptional humanity and understanding she brings to her work.

She says that one of the best parts of her job is when patients tell her they aren’t scared anymore. Todd Kennedy, a member of the Multiple Myeloma Squad, says, “Kerry O’Neil is an extraordinary healer with deep clinical expertise, a kind heart, a gentle touch and inspired leadership skills. When I was diagnosed, I expected I would dread my time at the infusion center. To my surprise, however, I look forward to the physical and emotional healing I receive during every visit with Kerry and the team she leads.”

Another member of the group sent Kerry photos of her daughter’s engagement over the holidays. “They feel like we’re part of the family and if we didn’t help them, they wouldn’t have accomplished this. She was afraid she wouldn’t see her daughter become engaged,” Kerry said.

It is no wonder that Kerry inspired her youngest daughter into nursing. In her nursing school application, her daughter wrote words that might have come from Kerry herself: “Medicine only treats the illness, but nurses treat the person behind the illness.”

She also spoke to constantly running into her mother’s patients around town and having them greet her with hugs and “enormous gratitude.”

“It is clear to see that the impact of a single nurse is far greater than that of the disease,” her daughter wrote. Kerry, who raised five children, embodies the best of oncology nursing.

I am proud to nominate Kerry O’Neil for the Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing because she sets the bar higher every day to do more for her patients. She prides herself in demonstrating an exceptional level of both expertise and compassion. We need more people like Kerry to be role models for the next generation of cancer care nurses, and I truly hope more nurses will follow in her footsteps.

For more news on cancer updates, research and education, don’t forget to subscribe to CURE®’s newsletters here.