Extraordinary Healer Ceremony Recognizes Oncology Nurses—and Their Profession

In a moving ceremony that drew tears from many in a crowd of nearly 1000, one outstanding nurse was recognized last night with CURE magazine's 2015 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing.

In a moving ceremony that drew tears from many in a crowd of nearly 1000, one outstanding nurse was recognized April 23 with CURE magazine’s 2015 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing.

Laura Vasquez, of Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, was honored for providing exceptional support to a girl who succumbed to a rare brain tumor at age 10—and also to the girl’s family. Vasquez accepted the 9th Annual Extraordinary Healer Award during the event held in Orlando, Florida site of the 2015 40th Annual ONS Congress.

“I’m a healer, I’m a fixer; and if people think it’s extraordinary, I really just try to do for them what I would do for my own family,” she said.

The event also honored two finalists. Beverly Moser, of Rose Quarter Compass Oncology in Portland, Oregon overcame a language barrier to help an Iranian cancer patient who spoke little English. Elmeria Teffeteller, of The University of Tennessee Medical Center Cancer Institute, is an oncology manager who goes above and beyond to care not only for patients, but also for their healers.

All three women were honored along with the people who nominated them by writing essays citing their compassion, expertise, and helpfulness.

On hand to speak about the crucial role of oncology nurses in the care of patients with cancer, and to help honor the winner and finalists, was actress Valerie Harper, who played the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on the 1970s sitcoms “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Rhoda.” As a patient with lung cancer that has metastasized to her brain, Harper understands all that oncology nurses do.

Serving as mistress of ceremonies for the event was Kathy LaTour, a survivor of invasive breast cancer, a public speaker in the survivor community, and the author of a book, The Breast Cancer Companion, published in 1993.

Inspiring a Career in Oncology Nursing

Vasquez, who lost her father to a malignant brain tumor when she was in her early 20s, says it was his oncology nurse who gave her the inspiration for her career. “She made me realize that you don’t just help the patient,” said Vasquez, a third-generation nurse. “You help the entire family in this journey.”

Denise Weiner, whose daughter, Alexa, battled brain cancer for more than 5 years, nominated Vasquez for all she did not only for Alexa but for the entire family. “To say that Laura went above and beyond the duties of a pediatric oncology nurse is an enormous understatement,” wrote Weiner.

As the award’s winner, Vasquez will be featured in an upcoming issue of CURE magazine. She will also receive an all-expenses-paid spa trip for two. All three nominees, their guests, and their essayists traveled to Orlando, to be recognized at Extraordinary Healer the event, with CURE Media Group covering the flight and hotel costs for all three nurses and their guests.

Harper, the event’s keynote speaker, knows first-hand the important role oncology nurses play in the lives of people with cancer. A four-time Emmy Award winner who was nominated for a Tony Award in 2010, the actress was diagnosed a year earlier with lung cancer. After living cancer-free for 5 years, she learned in 2013 that her cancer had spread to the meninges, the membranes surrounding the brain—a condition known as leptomeningeal carcinomatosis. Since then, targeted therapy has kept the disease at bay, enabling her to advocate for more cancer research funding.

Harper recalled being told she had 3 to 6 months to live due to her cancer’s recurrence. “That was two years and two months ago,” she said to applause.

The actress told the crowd that her mother had been a nurse, putting herself through school because her parents had refused to send her, encouraging her to go into teaching instead.

Bringing Heart, Intellect, and Candor

“I have such a deep appreciation for nurses in general,” Harper said, “but especially for you guys and gals delivering what you do. It goes beyond technology and intellect to the heart you have to bring to it, the caring, the softness—a certain candor you have to have to face death.”

She praised the room full of nurses for all that they do.

“Nurses get in there with all your knowledge and experience, and they’re willing to stay in a tough field,” she said. “Help is what is wanted or needed, and you are doing that. Only three people won the essay (contest), but I know it goes for all of you.”

The Extraordinary Healer Award winner and finalists were chosen from among a field of nominated nurses from across the country and also outside the United States.

Moser is an oncology nurse who treated Aghdas Ashtari, a nurse from Iran. Moser didn’t let the language barrier deter her from comforting her new patient. “I speak very little English, but Beverly needed no English and always read my mind. We mostly talked with our eyes,” wrote Ashtari in her translated essay. “She knew I was scared and lonely. She always went above and beyond to make me comfortable.”

From Moser’s perspective, it’s important to understand that “You’re intimately involved in these people’s lives. You meet them at a very raw place. They are looking for a kind of touchstone in the middle of a storm. That’s what oncology nurses provide: kindness, empathy and understanding.”

Teffeteller started her oncology nursing career in 1978 at the age of 20. Three years ago she became the nurse manager at the Chemotherapy Infusion Center at The University of Tennessee Medical Center Cancer Institute, according to a nurse who works on her team, Sandra Shelton, who wrote the nominating essay.

In managing a busy chemotherapy infusion center, Teffeteller helps patients both inside and outside the hospital, giving Christmas dinner to the families of several patients who couldn’t afford it this year, and gifting a kitten and all the supplies it would ever need to another. On the job, “She keeps morale high and implores us to use our heart, head and hands to make a difference every day,” Shelton wrote. “She often has to help the healer… her dedication to us and to our patients makes us better nurses and invigorates our devotion to excellence.”

Teffeteller, a resident of Alcoa, Tennessee, challenges her staff to be creative as well as caring with their patients. “Think outside the box,” she says. “If someone says something can’t be done, that’s unacceptable, especially if it’s something good for the patient.”

More background about each finalist can be found at http://www.curetoday.com/extraordinaryhealer.

“We received numerous essays about extraordinary oncology nurses, and it was difficult to narrow the focus to three outstanding nurses,” said Mike Hennessy Jr., president of CURE Media Group, who announced the winner. “We heard from many cancer patients, their families, and caregivers about a special oncology nurse who went above and beyond to help them get through the roller coaster ride that is cancer.”

All those nominated are doing a crucial job that is challenging because it requires the blending of specialized medical knowledge with a desire to support patients and families impacted by cancer, Hennessy pointed out. The complexities of evolving cancer treatments, he added, compel oncology nurses to remain well-educated, independent thinkers while also providing comfort, education, and advocacy for patients undergoing complicated and sometimes long-term treatments for the disease.

Since the inception of the Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing in 2007, more than 1000 nurses have been nominated. The finalists and essayists honored over the past 8 years have included men and women, adults and children, representing a variety of cancer centers and hospitals in 18 different states.

LaTour said that every year, the essays highlight truly remarkable contributions by oncology nurses. They have included a nurse driving 10 hours to learn how to administer a specific type of chemotherapy so a patient could have the treatment close to home; a nurse driving through 16 inches of unplowed snow on Christmas day to deliver a packet of information to a patient facing surgery; a nurse using her day off to throw a party for a 17-year-old hospitalized patient; and a nurse who planned a wedding for a man and his fiancé who were hospitalized and not expected to survive.

LaTour said that nominators often describe their oncology nurses as angels, and with good reason.

“You are angels, every one of you,” she said. “You draw your energy from a place only oncology nurses have, and we’re honoring all of you.”