Inspiring Others to Make a Difference in the Life of Someone With Cancer

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

Finalist for the 2015 Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing: Elmeria S. Teffeteller, RN, MSN, APRN, AOCN, University of Tennessee Cancer Institute in Knoxville, Tennessee

Elmeria S. Teffeteller, RN, MSN, APRN, AOCN (left) with Sandra Shelton, RN - PHOTO BY ALISHA BACON

IT WAS MY PRIVILEGE to meet Elmeria Teffeteller when she arrived in the Chemotherapy Infusion Center at the University of Tennessee Cancer Institute in Fall 2012. She was our new Nurse Manager. What a happy day it was for the Chemotherapy Infusion staff to welcome someone we barely knew, with great expectations of her and her abilities to “right a ship” that desperately needed repairs.

Elmeria started her career in oncology nursing in 1978 at the age of 20. She had been an oncology nurse for more than three decades when she joined our team. She brought an abundance of knowledge, energy and experience to the UT Cancer Institute, and has taught us that healing comes in many ways.

Little did I know what lessons I would learn from Elmeria. I thought I knew all about compassion. I believed I was a very compassionate nurse, but Elmeria defines compassion. She goes the extra mile to make certain our patients have what they need. We serve many patients who need transportation assistance in order to get their treatments since many come from poor communities throughout Appalachia. Elmeria has obtained funding from businesses, individuals and grants that have enabled us to provide gas cards to those in need.

A patient with stage IV breast cancer with three young children who had no means to provide Christmas dinner or Christmas gifts for her children....done! Elmeria’s persuasive abilities enabled other deserving families to also have a wonderful Christmas. One of our patients with metastatic cancer had small children who wished for a kitten. Thanks to Elmeria, their wish was granted (with an okay from mom). The kitten, Gracie Hope, was delivered to their home in a basket with all the supplies it would ever need. Compassion!

Elmeria Teffeteller is skilled at grant writing, and can motivate others to impact lives and improve the quality of each day for our patients and their families. She created and facilitates a Young Survivors’ Network. She obtained funding for four of our advanced-stage young survivors to attend a survivors’ meeting in Orlando. She persuaded others to donate so that these young ladies could spend a day at Universal Studios at Disney World. She pushed wheelchairs and helped with medical needs while there.

This was the trip of a lifetime for these ladies, who would never have been able to attend without her help. And it was the final trip for two of the young ladies who passed away shortly after arriving back home. A miracle that came true because of the skills of our Elmeria and her persevering spirit.

She also has developed a dynamic network of African-American breast cancer survivors. She trains these survivors so that they have the tools to educate women in their community about the importance of early detection. Through her leadership, these survivors also provide support for women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer.

Elmeria is exceptional at perceiving the feelings of everyone around her. We work in a very emotional, often difficult environment. We want to be attuned to our patients and their families’ feelings. The words cancer and chemotherapy are frightening words, and being genuine is extremely important. Elmeria is genuine and she truly cares. Whether she is dealing with a patient or a nurse in distress, she is amazing.

I have been the recipient of her empathy many times, and she has made me feel that I matter as a professional and a person. Managing a busy Chemotherapy Infusion Center, where volumes have increased by 95% in three years, is a daunting task. She keeps morale high and implores us to use our heart, head and hands to make a difference every day. Elmeria exhibits love in all of the things she does for others. The trip to Disney World, the Christmas dinners and toys, the parties for the Young Survivors, the visits to our patients in ICU — they are too numerous to count. And she does so much for our nurses. She plans luncheons with a special dessert for nurses who have obtained their OCN certification. She brings surprise cakes with special messages written on them for those wanting to announce pregnancies. She makes us feel treasured and valued, which enables us to provide superb care to those we serve.

I have never seen Elmeria put herself first. She comes to work regardless of how she feels or what is going on in her own life. (I know we have probably been the cause of a few headaches.) She has been there with us through deaths, births, divorces, miscarriages, weddings, graduations and personal tragedies. She often has to help heal the healer. She is our manager, yet she is our friend. Her dedication to us and our patients makes us better nurses and invigorates our devotion to excellence.

Elmeria shares our passion for oncology. The patients, the families, the illness, the sadness, the healing, the hope, the hospitalizations, and the deaths are all a part of what we face together on a daily basis. She never loses sight of what oncology nursing is about. Her leadership inspires us to be better oncology nurses.

Elmeria Teffeteller: COMPASSIONATE, SKILLED, EMPATHETIC, LOVING, AND SELFLESS. She is real, and it is my privilege to work with her. She cares about what I care about. She cares about me. She cares about my peers. She cares about my patients. She has the same passion I have. It is my privilege to call her my friend and colleague. She is an extraordinary healer.

A Team Effort — Nurturing the Next Generation of Oncology Nurses: An Interview With Elmeria S. Teffeteller, RN, MSN, APRN, AOCN

ELMERIA TEFFETELLER, RN, MSN, APRN, AOCN, began nursing when she was 20. Her plan was to spend her career in pediatrics. When she was hired at her first job, the opening in pediatrics was a few weeks away. They asked if she would work in oncology until a position opened. “They called me three weeks later and said they were ready to move me to the opening in pediatrics,” she says. “I told them I didn’t want it, I had found my home.”

The relationships with the patients and nurses made her want to stay in oncology, which she saw as a continually evolving area of nursing. “It allows me to be a lifelong learner. At the beginning of my career, I worked with a doctor who was a great teacher and took the time to explain pathophysiology, treatment planning and other aspects of oncology. I had the opportunity to work with a great team of nurses and doctors from the start.”

Today, when Teffeteller, now an advanced practice nurse and chemotherapy infusion center manager, hires new nurses in her department, even seasoned oncology nurses, she requires a four-week orientation. This will help ascertain that they understand the protocols, expectations, processes, standards of care and are confident in their abilities. “Oncology nurses have a calling,” she says. “Nurses either stay in oncology or quickly leave. We need to teach those who stay to be the best nurses possible because we want to cultivate and support the next generation of oncology nurses.”

Oncology nursing is a team effort, she says, and nurturing the next generation becomes a vital part of the team experience. With 20 nurses in her department, Teffeteller says when something good — or bad — happens they come together to talk about it. No one is threatened because anyone can make a mistake, she says, and by discussing what happened, everyone learns.

New drugs, challenging cases, difficult issues — everything is discussed by the nurses. All nurses should be teachers and learners. In addition to nursing, Teffeteller added grant writing to her skills to find money to add extras for the patients such as support networks for specific groups, among them, young women with cancer and African American women with breast cancer. A fund set up by the employees pays for gas for patients, many of whom come from Appalachia, the poorest area of the country.

“The middle class also struggles, and people don’t want to ask for help. I want the nurses to develop special antennae to help them discern the needs of the patients. Is the patient driving two hours for radiation daily? That can add up.”

Teffeteller has created an atmosphere of giving with her nurses, who often find resources on their own for patients or begin gathering Christmas gifts for struggling families. “They ask what they can do to help those in need and then find the resources.”

There are those who sometimes make it difficult for new nurses. Nurses must advocate and encourage one another and help every nurse reach his or her maximum potential. This is essential if we are to improve the patient experience and enhance the nurse experience.

Teffeteller has created an atmosphere of teaching and caring that her nurses honor and respect. She is called a maker of miracles for her patients and nurses alike.