An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring PROFESSIONALS OF THE GYNECOLOGIC ONCOLOGY UNIT [KAISER PERMANENTE MEDICAL CENTER, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA]
I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, stage 3c, in July 2014. I was 71 years old and learned of this five days after a long-yearned-for face-lift. What a contrast of events! But, to my amazement, there was no sense of deadly devastation. Instead, I have experienced humor and nurturing and scrupulous care and skill. This is because of the people in gynecologic oncology at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles. It would be inaccurate and unfair to give one person more attention than another, because each of the six chemotherapy nurses has a unique style and character and skills. None is better than the others; each is an individual and should be acknowledged as part of a team.
The wonderful care actually began a week before my first appointment. I do not wait well, so I asked if I could call each morning to see if there was a cancellation and was told that this was perfectly fine. I did and was given an appointment the following morning, when I met my first chemo nurse. Her name is Hyun Dow, RN, but she goes by Sunny, and it isn’t enough to say that she has been my rock. Sunny is from Korea, with special training in chemotherapy nursing (a requirement at Kaiser). She is scrupulous in her attention to detail — she alerted me to the risk of airplane travel just a week after chemo, advised me not to have dental work during chemo and provides specific care when flushing my port each month. She gave me her cellphone number in case I need help, and if I ask for a doctor to answer a question, she finds one — no bureaucracy. She told me how to make kimchi and about her new grandchildren. She knows about both the physical and psychological impacts of cancer. She calls me following blood tests so that I know immediately if I can have my treatment. When she calls to make an appointment, she immediately says, “This isn’t urgent. Everything is OK.” Sunny knows each patient and provides extraordinary personal and unique care.
There is my wonderful Christina Aguinaldo, RN, also a specially trained chemo nurse. Tina has her own style. She is fast — very fast! — yet leaves nothing unfinished. She once described herself as “very OCD” as she laid out additional materials and gloves. She doesn’t skimp in her level of care, combining honesty (“This might be painful”) and pain-reducing skill as she does some tests that require needles. She checks and checks again to be sure of levels and amounts of drugs. She is not just an efficient nursing machine — she is kind and compassionate and forthcoming. She has been willing to talk of her own life, her family and her training in the Philippines. I have noticed her concern for and attention to patients who are in pain or fatigued or simply afraid. She is sensitive and skilled, and she laughs. It is contagious.
Erin Chen, RN, is the newest nurse — also with the requisite chemo-nursing education. She arrived at Kaiser about a year ago from China via Salt Lake City. Her training has been extensive, both in China and again in the United States. She is enormously kind, and considering that she is just in her 20s, her ability to work with seriously ill patients is quite remarkable: Her sensitivity and attention to detail are rare in one so young. She is very, very bright and clearly enjoys her work. We’ve spoken about her choice to work with patients with cancer who may have a grim outlook; she is realistic and cheerful and compassionate. What a welcome addition!
I’d like to include three more women, who are not officially chemo nurses but are a vital part of this group. The first is a licensed vocational nurse and the other two are medical assistants, and they do the basics like weighing and measuring and asking questions and taking blood pressure and checking people in and out. They answer the phones and forward emails and return calls. They get blankets and pillows and adjust recliners and unplug IV poles so patients can go to the bathroom. They uncap containers for urine specimens for those of us with arthritic fingers. They are separate individuals, and I am so fond of each of them.
Brittanye Cole, LVN, is a rare and funny individual. She is model gorgeous, even in scrubs; seeing her is an adventure. She is very verbal and clever. She is also a single mother and attends nursing school at night. She understands the nuances of cancer, and her level of care is growing by leaps and bounds. She has a positive energy that is palpable. All the patients seem to know her, and all connect with her.
Elvira Ventura, MA, makes me happy. She is very savvy, taking my medical history quickly and doing intake efficiently but never without really personal care. I feel that I’ve known her for years. She’s fun and very intelligent, and she has a good mix of knowledge, such as which malls have the best stores and how to calm anxious patients who have high blood pressure (me) to make infusion possible. She is always smiling but not in a robotic way. She obviously takes her work with patients very seriously but does so with equanimity Thomaya Jackson-White, MA: an amazing woman who is truly a pillar of strength. I’ve known her since my diagnosis three-plus years ago. She was pregnant, and I learned only recently that, during that time, her husband was murdered. She never alluded to this tragedy; I only found out because I asked about her family. She does not wear that horrific experience on her sleeve. She is calm and cheerful and professional — always smiling — and gives wonderful back rubs during my repeated blood pressure tests. Thomaya is, in a word, kind.
I’d always thought that if I ever was diagnosed with cancer, I’d be so overwhelmed and devastated that I’d be unable or unwilling to function. Why bother, why laugh, why make plans or wear eye makeup or avoid fats and sugar or power walk? This has not been the case. I’ve lived with the disease and one recurrence, and I realize that future recurrence is very likely. (I also know that treatment can be available.) I’ve coexisted with this disease that many consider The End of the World As We Know It. Other than losing my hair, I’ve had no side effects.
I firmly believe that my ability to function is because of the outstanding medical care I’ve received: the skill, honesty, personal attention and trust that the people in gynecologic oncology at Kaiser/Sunset have provided. I like going to my doctor, Allison Axtell, M.D. — a superstar and one of the best human beings I’ve ever known (I’m 75, so I’ve known quite a few!). I enjoy hanging out with the nurses, and I have a good time when I’m there. I leave in good cheer because of them. I thank them with all my heart.