Extraordinary, Without a Doubt: My Oncology Nurse

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healers Vol. 9, Volume 9, Issue 1

An essay from our Extraordinary Healers book honoring Elizabeth Ditavi, RN, BSN, OCN [Gillette Center for Gynecologic Oncology, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston]

Elizabeth DiTavi, RN, BSN, OCN (left) with Sally O'Shea - PHOTO BY AMY BUELOW

I'VE HAD ONLY FOUR-AND-A-HALF YEARS of intimate experience with the world of oncology, but there is no question that Elizabeth DiTavi is an extraordinary healer! Elizabeth is an oncology nurse in the gynecologic cancer unit of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. She joined the team of Dr. Marcela del Carmen three years ago, hand-picked from the inpatient oncology unit. Elizabeth makes an incredible difference in the lives of cancer patients as they learn of their diagnosis, face surgery, undergo treatment, and navigate a new world with a chronic cancer.

Elizabeth has always made me feel as if I was a priority, and taken all of my concerns and many, many questions seriously. She is able to provide answers, find solutions and present information in a way you’d expect to hear from a caring friend.

In person, no matter how busy things are, she’s full of humor, smiles and time. She and Dr. del Carmen are a truly dynamic duo. As time goes by, I am increasingly grateful for the continuity of care I’m receiving. In my first few years of treatment, I was meeting a new nurse or nurse practitioner with regularity. Having had Elizabeth by my side for three years has forged a lasting bond. She’s been with me through my first recurrence, inpatient chemo and the uneventful routine check-ups. When I decided to apply for disability, it was Elizabeth who came through with the right words and encouragement to take on the process.

Living several hours from Boston, there have been many times when questions or symptoms have come up, but the distance is made irrelevant knowing that I can contact Elizabeth by email or phone and get a very quick response, putting my concerns at ease. She provides the sounding board when a procedure or treatment needs to be talked through a second time. She makes sure tests and appointments are scheduled in ways that make sense for the time it takes me to get to the hospital. She ensures that communication is flowing with my local oncologist. I know that through Elizabeth, I also have access to Dr. del Carmen if needed. I feel cared for, which is different than taken care of— and far from being just another oncology patient.

In 2014, Elizabeth and a colleague attended the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition (NOCC) conference in Las Vegas, where they heard a presentation full of humor and hope by a cancer survivor. Within months of returning to MGH, they had organized "An Evening for Women Living with Cancer." The evening featured Katya Lezin, an author and cancer survivor, along with two of the hospital’s gynecological oncologists speaking not of the science of ovarian cancer, but of the humanity of working with women with cancer and how their lives had been affected. It was a great event and a wonderful opportunity for patients and staff to interact beyond the walls of the clinic.

The first year I met Elizabeth, she spoke of taking part in the annual NOCC Walk/Run in South Boston. I was so moved that her caring and commitment spilled out of the hospital halls and into her life. The first year she walked, and the second year she ran, and I pledged financial support and cheered her on from afar. The third year, when she said she was going to better her time and that her daughters were walking too, my daughter and I joined the MGH fundraising team. It was a beautiful day along the shore, a sea of teal pulsing along the 5K course. Elizabeth inspired me to become a part of that fundraising event by the example she set, and we’re already forming a team for next fall.

Elizabeth’s qualifications as a nurse are just the starting point for my praise. She is always there to calm fears, explore opportunities and even just to "check in." Her passion for her job becomes compassion for her patients—the women she makes feel like far more than just cancer patients.