Finalist essay for CURE's 2013 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing.
My husband and I first met Steven Cuzzilla, RN when I was admitted to the hospital for my bone marrow transplant.
I’d been admitted at Vanderbilt several times prior to transplant while undergoing chemotherapy, but we’d never had the pleasure of having Steven as our nurse. There were a select few night nurses that I always requested because, truthfully, I wanted to be able to sleep at night while in the hospital; and trust me, not all night shift nurses are created equal. So it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t a bit hesitant the night Steven walked through my door. I knew he was a newer nurse, or so I had assumed, and I was just unsure of how things would go. He came into the room at shift change and I was pleasantly surprised. He was very thorough with his exam, asked a lot of questions, and genuinely seemed interested in how I was feeling. Better yet, he was especially quiet during the night and worked by the glow of the computer screen, which meant I was able to sleep without being disturbed every 2 hours.
However, that’s only the superficial part of what makes Steven such a wonderful nurse. I had Steven a couple of nights in a row, so we had the opportunity to talk and share some brief life stories. There was one night in particular that my husband and I had been in some deep discussion about our “future” and what decisions we should make concerning money, work, and possibly relocating from our current home. It was like Steven knew I was extremely stressed out because he took a seat at the end of my bed and just started talking to me. I told him all of my worries about work, money, and life in general. This was when he took the time to share his life story with me.
You see, Steven hadn’t always been a nurse. This was his second career. He told my husband and I about his wife’s battle with cancer when she was in her 20’s. I immediately glanced at his left hand, because I was certain I didn’t recall seeing a wedding band. His story continued, and he told us of his wife’s battle with metastatic melanoma and her ultimate loss of that battle. It turns out that his wife was treated right there at Vanderbilt University, the same place we were sitting at that moment. So when he gave me advice about not worrying and trying to live in the moment, he was speaking from true experience. It wasn’t just generalities, this was his reality. He told us about how he and his wife always lived in the moment and never took anything for granted. He told me that the only thing I needed to focus on was beating this cancer. He said to take each day as it came, not to focus on things years down the road, because you never know when your last day will arrive. He wasn’t being cynical by saying that, he was being honest and speaking from experience.
We really don’t know when our last day is here, especially as a cancer patient, and most especially as a transplant patient. He said that my husband and I should focus on us, focus on being together, focus on truly living each day; not just floating from one minute to the next, but truly living. I remember crying, no, sobbing because I just couldn’t believe his story. He was such a bubbly, fun-loving, relaxed guy. I would have never guessed that he had endured losing a wife. And the thought that he had returned to the place she had died, and changed his career just so he could give back and help others who were going through the same thing he and his wife had, that was just mind-blowing. I knew I wasn’t strong enough to do that. But here he was, sitting on my bed with that big, Italian smile and those brown, curly locks, and he was giving me advice; he was helping me, just as he had set out to do when he decided to change his career to oncology nursing.
He gave me the best advice I have ever received. He told me that any decision I made was the right one, because at least I was making a decision. I couldn’t sit and worry about the consequences or if it was the “right” thing to do. He then left me with his words of wisdom from Alice in Wonderland, “every hole you jump in has a Jabberwocky in it, Alice, and you just have to keep going.” It may seem simple, but when you are going through cancer, every decision is a hard one. You are facing life and death at the same time, and you fear that any decision you make will be the wrong one. You have so many regrets, so many wishes, and you just can’t decipher what you should do. So hearing Steven tell me to live out my life, do what I want, live life how it is supposed to be lived and enjoy it, that was what touched my heart. He had lived through those same fears and had those same thoughts, and he was “paying it forward.”
Our conversation ended shortly after that, because he had to go hang chemotherapy in another room, and he’d already spent 40+ minutes talking with me. But I will never, ever forget his words and advice. I will always try to live life as he described to me, and I will never fear the “Jabberwocky” that appears in my route. I am forever indebted to Steven for his compassion, his willingness to take time out for me, his knowledge and skill as a nurse, and most of all his determination to help us cancer patients. He has left a footprint on my heart, and will never be forgotten.