From the Routine to the Unusual: The Nurse Who Stayed With Me Through Cancer Care

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

An Extraordinary Healers essay honoring Carla Schaefer, BSN, RN, OCN [Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, NJ]

Dorinda Sparacio (left) with Carla Schaefer, BSN, RN, OCN - PHOTO BY ROBIN RESCH

It was August 2005, and I slowly walked into the adult treatment area at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey, holding a pillow to my abdomen. Two weeks before, I had had surgery after learning that I had stage III ovarian cancer.

I was nervous to say the least, and still coming to grips with my diagnosis. I had chosen to take part in a clinical trial that involved an infusion of selenium on day 1 and carboplatin/paclitaxel on day 3. I was coming in for the first infusion through my week-old chest port-a-cath. Due to the speed at which my doctors wanted me to start chemotherapy, I had not been able to attend the usual initial treatment tour, and wasn’t too sure what to expect.

I was shown to a recliner and told that the nurse would be right with me. As Carla approached, she smiled a smile that quickly calmed me. She pulled up a chair and introduced herself. We chatted about what would happen. She asked me how I was feeling, and gave me advice on how to be comfortable during the infusion. Then, she got to work taking blood and ordering my selenium.

I asked Carla many questions, but never once did she get impatient with me. She taught me how to negotiate opening doors with an IV pole in hand. She listened as I told her about my adult children. She told me about her young daughter. We talked about the upcoming college football season (she is a Penn State alum, while I am a Rutgers alum). The time went by pretty quickly.

When the infusion was done, she explained what would happen when I came in for the first carboplatin/paclitaxel infusion. Even though I was not always her patient during my treatment, she always made a point to stop by and say hello.

Fast-forward to January 2009. Two months after a spleenectomy and liver resection for an ovarian cancer recurrence, I was back in the treatment area. I was there for my second of six rounds of chemo. Who was my nurse that day? Carla Schaefer. Once again with a smile on her face, she pointed toward a chair right across from her place at the nurses station. This time around I wasn’t nervous. I felt like an old pro in the treatment area. I was so confident, in fact, that I told my husband to leave and do the chores on his list.

Carla accessed my port, drew blood and sent me to my appointment with my doctor. I came back and shared with her how happy I was that my tumor marker was down. She told me that my white blood cells and platelets were in the normal range, and that I could have my treatment that day. I had the paclitaxel infusion with no problems.

After flushing the line, Carla started the carboplatin. Shortly after that, I felt light-headed and flushed. I looked over toward the nurses station and said, “Carla, things are not right.” She ran over and immediately stopped the drip while the other nurses called the pharmacist and my gynecologic oncologist. She administered the drugs to combat my reaction. Yet, I was still short of breath and had pains in my chest. Carla was there by my side as my doctor told me that my EKG was abnormal, and the cardiologist wanted to admit me to the hospital. Carla was there to call my husband and calmly explain to him what had happened, since I was in no shape to make that call. She was there to make sure I had everything I had brought with me for what I thought would be a routine day of chemo, and even came to the hospital with me. And most important, she was there to hold my hand and tell me I would be okay. And I was.

I have been disease-free since finishing my chemotherapy in 2009. Up until this past October, when I had my chest port-a-catheter removed, I saw Carla when I would get my port flushed. She is now the adult treatment nurse manager, but she continues to find the time to give me a hug and chat like old friends.

What makes an extraordinary nurse like Carla Schaefer? One who listens and calms their patients during their very first treatment, and provides excellent oncology nursing care — with a large dose of compassion when the unusual occurs.