How My Nurse Helped Me Focus on My Own Cancer Journey

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

An Extraordinary Healers essay honoring Tam Yunker, RN, ADN [Levine Cancer Center, Carolinas Health Care System, in Charlotte, North Carolina]

Rev. Margaret M. Nunez, RN, BSN, MA, NCC, LPC (left) with Tam Yunker, RN, ADN - PHOTO BY NANINE HARTZENBUSCH

Tam Yunker exemplifies the highest standards of nursing possible — as a caregiver of others, as an honest, compassionate and caring person. Tam has met my medical needs by providing me with information and support, and by deciphering the complicated questions and factors of my illness (multiple myeloma). She has been available, responsive and kind as she responds to all of my requests for information and clarification, although the reassurance I really need is always behind those requests.

Although Tam is a member of a medical team headed by Dr. Saad Usmani and is a nurse for many patients, I see her as “my nurse.” I have learned from Tam to practice self-care and compassion. As the “expert” helper that I am, as I describe below, I needed to put my eye on me and practice this for myself. Tam helped me practice that ability.

I am a psychiatric nurse, not an oncology nurse. Although I am a licensed professional counselor, I am unable to stop my own anxieties, fears and occasional panicky feelings. I have worked for years as a hospital chaplain, but when I was diagnosed in 2012 with multiple myeloma, I faced the tangled spiritual questions that I often helped others disentangle. As a United Methodist deacon, I have supported members of my church in the dark hours of their nights. I have spent most of my life helping others meet their needs, and have been grateful to make that my career. So even though I had helped so many others as they faced their challenges, I found it difficult to accept my own illness.

Tam’s admirable caring and giving qualities began long before she became a nurse 24 years ago. She grew up, as she put it, “Not in the best of families.” When cleaning houses to earn money as ateenager, she made the decision that she had to leave home in order to survive. One of the “sweet” women whose houses she cleaned invited her to move in with her. Tam took the offer, “a chance, an opportunity,” something Tam feels every person — especially a child — should have. Tam lived with this kind woman until she graduated from high school. Later on, as the woman aged, Tam took her into her own home and cared for her until her death. After high school, Tam joined the Marines and enjoyed her work in aerial photography.

It was in Okinawa, Japan, that she met her husband. They are happily married and have three biological children and several foster children, “too many to count.” Fortunate children who found their way into her home to stay. School principals or other teenagers often referred children in need to her. One child, who came to her at the age of 14, who had been considerably neglected and delayed, is now preparing to go to college.

So you can see that Tam’s heart is huge, and the caregiving continues, as she and her husband currently care for her father-in-law with Alzheimer’s disease. Her biological children have experienced serious medical issues this year, and yet, with all of her nonclinical duties, she has time for her patients, and for me. Tam believes that “patients are always first,” and that they should be treated with the same concern, honesty and interest as family members. I don’t know it as a fact, but I’ll bet she treats me the same way she would treat her own mother.

I trust Tam to be honest with me. I value her opinion, and when I ask her a question, I trust her answer. My husband and I had been planning a trip to Florida for one of the weeks off from my chemotherapy, a process that typically leaves me depleted. When I asked Tam if we should take the trip, her reply was, “Well, if you were my mother I would tell you to stay home as your platelets have been dropping quickly.” As soon as she said that, I felt calm and knew instinctively that she was correct.

Tam is available to me via a “protected trust” e-mail account. When I need an answer, she will reply to me, usually the same day. Her knowledge of oncology has led her to the position as trainer of other nurses. Her knowledge and work relationships with the physicians in our community enable her to provide quick and appropriate referrals outside of the oncology practice. And finally, I have often heard from the other nurses in the course of my treatment about Tam’s deep and unwavering commitment to the team and to the patients — including the expert healers who need healing themselves.