Finalist Essay: My Christmas Carol

CURE, Summer 2012, Volume 11, Issue 2

Finalist essay for CURE's 2012 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing.

On December 22, 2010, three days before Christmas, a surprise visitor arrived at my house. It was not Dancer or Prancer…it was cancer.

Two weeks earlier, my annual screening mammogram had detected nothing unusual. However, for the first time, I’d also booked a screening ultrasound. A new law in Connecticut allowed women with dense breast tissue to receive additional imaging. That ultrasound detected an abnormality that did not appear in my mammogram. A few days later, a needle biopsy was performed—it was cancer.

The diagnosis was a complete shock to me, and its timing was awful. Christmas was three days away. However, within 24 hours of that diagnosis, an incredible system kicked into gear for which I remain so tremendously grateful. The imaging center passed my information on to Mary Heery, APRN, AOCNS, a breast health specialist at the Smilow Family Breast Health Center (SFBHC) at Norwalk Hospital. Mary called me the next day and was a source of great counsel and comfort to me during those initial hours. She was able to provide me with important information about what should happen next, and she was able to be a kind, informative friend—half professional nurse and half “breast-buddy”—when I felt adrift in a very big “C.”

Mary went above and beyond the call of duty on two occasions during the initial days after my diagnosis. Because the Christmas holidays were upon us, she offered to hand-deliver a packet of informative materials to my home—books, charts and guides provided by SFBHC that would help educate and organize me as I moved through the many consults and procedures ahead. Her offer to hand-deliver that material was amazingly thoughtful. However, we were presented with an even bigger challenge—a Christmas blizzard. Snow is not unusual to coastal Connecticut but blizzards are. Mary braved the 16 inches of snow to bring me that packet of information. I met her at the end of my driveway because it was still unplowed, and my mailbox had been knocked over by the storm. My appreciation knew no bounds.

Mary’s second “above and beyond” gesture was made on my behalf to get the answer to a very important question I had regarding whether I should proceed with a rather extensive dental procedure I was due to begin in a few days. Mary offered to call a breast surgeon (who was on Christmas vacation) to get the answer. Much to my amazement, Mary was able to deliver an answer to me within a day. Wow!

In one of our early conversations, I told Mary that she and the SFBHC had been the best Christmas present I’d received.

Mary also gave me her cellphone number so that I could call her at any time if I needed to talk to her during the days leading up to Christmas and beyond. This was a tremendous comfort to me because I didn’t want to ruin Christmas for members of my family by telling them about my diagnosis. Additionally, I wasn’t able to get appointments for consultations with breast cancer surgeons until after the holidays. All I had was a diagnosis, fear and Mary. Having Mary’s phone number, and permission to call it, even during such a festive, busy time, was incredibly reassuring and kind.

Over the Christmas holidays, I was able to read all of the material that Mary provided, and this allowed me to hit the ground running in 2011. The books, pamphlets, handouts, websites and guidance she delivered were not only impressively packaged but were tremendous resources to me as I attempted to become an expert at my own breast cancer. When I visited Mary for a one-on-one appointment at SFBHC, she answered my questions and provided me with more materials, all of which were great resources for me and my family.

In one of our early conversations, I told Mary that she and the SFBHC had been the best Christmas present I’d received. Though my cancer diagnosis was an unlucky stroke of fate, I still feel so incredibly lucky to have had Mary Heery enter my life at such a critical time. In this day and age, navigating medical challenges can be such a frustrating and impersonal process. Hearing a diagnosis like cancer is a big enough blow—the last thing a patient wants to additionally feel is that he or she is simply a number, an income stream or abandoned. Mary (as a representative of SFBHC and Norwalk Hospital) treated me like a human being and was helpful in every way possible. She was so important in providing the information, care and confidence I needed at such a vulnerable time.

During 2011, I had a lumpectomy, mastectomy and reconstruction. Though these procedures weren’t performed at Mary’s hospital, she continued to check in on me. After the surgeries, I circled back to Norwalk Hospital for my oncologic care. The day I arrived for my first oncology consultation, Mary greeted me in the waiting room. This wouldn’t have seemed unusual except that we hadn’t talked in a while, and I hadn’t told her I was coming. She had figured it out on her own. To be greeted that way—with warmth, enthusiasm, concern and a welcoming, reassuring smile—was so incredibly refreshing and uplifting. It changed the tone in the oncology waiting room where the air can hang heavy with sadness, discomfort and fear.

There’s Something About Mary. Though I’m referring to the name of a popular 1998 film, the title also applies to Mary Heery. She might tell you that she was only doing her job. However, when breast cancer and I collided at Christmastime and I was reeling in disbelief and was clueless about what to do next, my phone rang. That was Mary doing her job. But then Mary went beyond that phone call. She showed up on her own personal time, in 16 inches of snow, to do more than her job—she showed up to rescue me. I’ll be forever appreciative.