Footprints On Our Hearts

Finalist essay for CURE’s 2011 Extraordinary Healer Award contest.

Sometimes your life is changed because an extraordinary person comes to share it with you. Rebecca was that person for my son Keith. Just a few years older than Keith, her youthful exuberance perfectly enhanced her compassionate and skillful nursing care as she protected and guided him along his cancer journey.

Keith was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma in 2004. He took all the surgery, chemo and radiation in stride, but his disease became recurrent and included the associated physical and emotional turmoil. Having endured so much, he had very specific ideas about his care and was often outspoken and irreverent. He was blessed with many exceptional caregivers, but Rebecca listened to him with her heart when she became part of the clinical nursing staff. She intuitively understood that he wasn’t just being difficult; he wanted a small measure of control over his uncontrollable disease. He could count on her to laugh, banter and talk to him while meticulously monitoring his comfort and care with incredible empathy. Always willing to be a little self-deprecating and ridiculous if she knew it would make Keith smile, one day she donned a pair of moon shoes to walk up the hall much to Keith’s delight. Over time, they forged a strong connection of respect and friendship.

Rebecca understood that more than anything else, Keith hoped to be well enough to finish college and go to graduate school. She compiled a treatment roadmap to help him anticipate and document his progress. She also knew he was reserved when it came to sharing details about his health. If there was a problem while he was attending school and commuting home for chemo, he might require care where they wouldn’t know him or his history. She made sure he had a letter outlining his status, treatment and clinic contact information. The letter worked its magic for him the day he was sent from the campus health center to the ER with a fever. Rebecca monitored his platelet counts and worried endlessly as they dropped, concerned that a fall, cut or bump on his head would precipitate a serious bleed. Keith and his oncologist on the other hand were very nonchalant. They felt it was very important that he attend school while he could. By the time another count was done two or three days later, it had rebounded! Keith would tease Rebecca about worrying needlessly, but their mutual respect only increased.

Keith graduated cum laude from college and was accepted to graduate school. However, he was unable to start classes; his disease had returned. Rebecca anticipated his changed needs and arranged for a transport chair and medical supplies that would facilitate his comfort and care. He was hospitalized for over two weeks while his oncologist worked on another treatment plan, and Rebecca visited regularly, offering encouragement and chatter to distract him from his situation. She monitored his medications to see if any changes might increase his comfort. She helped ensure his clinic birthday was special by making him a card, cookies and a huge paper target displaying pictures of the staff. They spoke frequently about his passion for target shooting, and it was becoming physically impossible for him to do. He could hang the paper target on the wall of his room and use a marshmallow gun to get in some target shooting. She always understood the importance of the things in his life outside of cancer.

Rebecca’s contacts increased when Keith stopped responding to treatment and struggled to come to terms with the reality that his disease would overcome any desire he had to be well. Calling frequently between clinic visits to check his status, she posed the question that was still unanswered, “Would he remain at home or choose to enter the hospital?” Neither seemed right to him, and Rebecca offered the advice that sometimes the answer presents itself. The answer did present itself on what would turn out to be his last day in clinic. In severe pain, very short of breath and doubtful of the continuity of home-based care, Keith decided to enter the hospital to be closer to the comfort and support of Rebecca and the clinical staff. She visited daily during personal time talking to him and gently holding his hand even when he became unresponsive. While carefully making a cast of his hand so I would have a more tangible memory of him, she smiled and acknowledged that Keith would have major issues with the process. Sensing that the end of his journey was very near that afternoon, Rebecca requested that I call her regardless of the time. She came back to the hospital in the middle of that night to help with his final care. She treated him with all the grace, respect and dignity that was always so important to his sense of self and provided me with incredible support. How poignant that someone so important to him was there for us both as his cancer journey came to a close.

Acknowledging the scope of the relationship that had developed over the course of his journey, this remarkable nurse’s care and support didn’t end. Rebecca made the long trip to Keith’s memorial service with two other clinical staff members to offer comfort. She helped notify agencies providing medical equipment and services, and dealt appropriately with the multitude of medical supplies and medications that remained. She sent me copies of precious video clips taken of him at clinic. She took the time on a busy weekend to attend a clinic memorial service and provided me with the comfort of her presence. Rebecca is the extraordinary healer that changed Keith’s life just by being a part of it. She generously offered many small things that over time made a huge difference and left her footprints on our hearts. Keith was so fortunate to have had the blessings of Rebecca’s care and compassion while traveling in the shadow of his mortality.