Q&A with Brian Elliott, RN, winner of the 2007 Extraordinary Healer award.
Brian Elliott, RN, of Colquitt Regional Medical Center in Moultrie, Ga., is winner of CURE magazine’s inaugural Extraordinary Healer Award, which was presented in Las Vegas this spring in conjunction with the launch of Heal magazine. Elliott was one of three finalists selected from an essay contest in which cancer patients, caregivers or survivors nominated oncology nurses for personal and professional qualities including compassion, expertise, helpfulness and insight.
How did you decide to become an oncology nurse?
I worked on our outpatient surgery floor, which also had an oncology wing. It was there I first had the chance to work with oncology patients. I learned quickly that our group of oncology patients was a very special group of patients that I loved working with. I love having long-term contact with my patients, and this type of nursing was right up my alley. I left this unit but eventually had the opportunity to work full-time with oncology later.
What is it that makes oncology patients special?
I think it’s their attitudes, compared to other groups of people. These patients have such good attitudes when they come back to see us. … So many times we try encouraging them and they wind up encouraging us. They’re focused. They know what they’re here for; they put everything they have into trying to beat the cancer.
What is the most important thing, as a healer, that helps you connect with a patient?
Probably having or trying to have the ability to put yourself in their shoes, to see exactly what they’re going through, to look at things from their point of view. It’s not always easy.
Our patients, especially the oncology patients, have a great sense of discernment — they figure you out quickly. I try to be genuine, open, and have a good sense of humor when it comes to our patients. I believe this makes them feel comfortable and at home with me as their nurse. I also don’t try to emotionally disconnect from the patient. It’s important for the patient to know you care for them physically, and emotionally as well.
What advice do you give people upon the completion of treatment, on how to approach life after cancer?
Again, we tell our folks to call us if they have issues. It’s amazing how many of us will worry about things when a phone call and/or visit can clear up the concern. I think patients feel more comfortable when their doctor and healthcare team is truly accessible.
What aspects of your personal faith or philosophy help you cope with the medical difficulties of those around you?
When I have done all that is possible for my patients as far as their treatment, and some still continue to worsen, having a faith in God definitely helps the coping process. It’s hard not to bring these folks home with you, but it’s comforting to know I can pray not only for the patient and their families, but I can also pray for the staff, that we can provide the best care possible.
The essay that nominated you was based on your experience with Becky Bevacqua, a patient who died of her breast cancer. What do you take away from that experience?
Probably her resilience more than anything else, how she just refused to give in to all the side effects of the medicines and the sometime negative reports that she would get. She just would not stop until she had exhausted everything possible, and mainly she was thinking of not just herself but of other people, her family and friends and everyone else. It wasn’t a self-motivated resilience; it was definitely for everyone else.
She was a schoolteacher and she just loved teaching those children. And that was foremost in her mind. She was notorious for hiding things, especially from her family; she wouldn’t really give them the whole story … just because she didn’t want to burden them with the load that she was carrying. Probably none of us would ever understand what she was carrying.
Besides “good health,” if you could have one wish granted for every cancer patient you see upon the completion of treatment, what would it be?
Undoubtedly, peace of mind — not having to live in the fear that they’ll have to come back and see me again.
CURE and Heal staff reviewed more than 200 essays that eloquently testified to the impact oncology nurses have on the physical and emotional healing experienced during and after cancer treatment. The winning essay was written by Margaret R. Light, sister of breast cancer patient Becky Bevacqua. Elliott, a nurse for 15 years and an oncology nurse for three, spoke with Heal Managing Editor Karen Patterson about his work as an oncology nurse and its personal impact: