An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring JOY LARIMER, RN [ESSENTIA HEALTH—ST. MARY’S HOSPITAL, DULUTH, MINNESOTA]
Susan Edgington and Joy Larimer, RN - PHOTOS BY RENDULICH PHOTOGRAPHY
Her name is Joy. And it exemplifies the passion and healing she brings to the pediatric wing of Essentia’s St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, Minnesota. Joy Larimer has been a pediatric nurse for many years, and the dedication that she brings every day to her young charges makes a difference.
I am a mother of a teenage boy who had leukemia. My son Sasha was 13 when diagnosed, and 10 months later passed away from his disease. We spent almost 200 days on the pediatric floor receiving treatment and dealing with the effects of the chemo regimen that a young person receives to fight his or her cancer. As a parent, the word cancer reverberates in your brain and body, and stops the world as you know it. To say that word out loud will make you stop breathing and cause your heart and soul to shudder. “My son has cancer.”
As a family, we all began to live in the new world that revolved around the chemo, the pain, the hair loss, the many bags of blood, platelets and the ever-present bag for vomiting. We cannot forget those nightmarish days and weeks of neutropenia. We, as a family, lived that along with a child who was aware that he might die. Couple that with other children on the same floor dealing with varying effects of cancer. It is a small glimpse into the horror and, at times, the lonely moments of having a child with cancer.
When Joy starts her shift, be it a day or night, she makes sure that every child who has cancer gets blessed, regardless of whether she is taking care of them. She comes to their beds and places her hands on their bald heads. She then puts her forehead on theirs and says a silent prayer, kissing their foreheads before she leaves. She is hip to teen talk and knows all of the lingo that helps connect her to their world. If she has a spare moment, she will sit at the edge of a bed and play a video game, teasing and bantering. She knows what each child needs in order to smile for that moment. She can be firm, and somehow manages to get the medicine or treatment accomplished with the consent and cooperation of her little charges. She has an amazing sense of humor that gets the care administered with the least amount of fuss. She is Joy. All of the kids with cancer brighten up when Joy enters the room. Not only is she compassionate, lively and humorous, but her professionalism is top-notch. She keeps up with her training and will go beyond what is expected. Her knowledge and ability to communicate that knowledge are rare skills. Her dedication and devotion to these kids is her motivation to do more.
For us, for Sasha, she would tease and cajole to get that smile. When Sasha was incapable of processing his latest setback, she understood and gave him his time to reflect. When Sasha received the devastating news that his cancer had relapsed and his outlook wasn’t as positive, she packed him in a wheelchair, unhooked his IVs, and had us take him to the local beach on Lake Superior. He did not want to uncoil his fetal position as he grieved, but by forcing the issue in a quiet Joy way, we left for the park and sat out on the rocks by the water. In 15 to 20 minutes, Sasha began to share his fears and talk about death. For two hours, we sat on those rocks, in the sunshine and by the waves, processing the what-ifs. Joy knew we needed this time, and she made sure we had it. This is Joy.
Joy works well with the oncologists and is highly respected by them. She is a part of their team, and her insights are highly valued. She is a natural leader, and her peers respect and love her. I’ve watched her work small miracles with these kids. A 3-year-old, scabbed and weak from her chemo, being walked side by side on a small trike down the hall. Joy, finding the time to sit at the bedside with a parent, comforting and encouraging. And allowing tears and hugs on her ever-present shoulders. Yes, there were times when the nurses had tears in their eyes over a loss on the floor. But the celebrations of success and the returning visits of children on the mend counterbalanced them. Joy was front and center at these moments.
Our son passed away on December 10, 2013, heartbreaking and life-altering for our family. We were allowed to have hospice care on the pediatric floor, as Sasha wanted to be with the people who cared for him the past 10 months. Joy and the staff did everything possible to be supportive of Sasha during his last days, and of us as we grieved.
Our journey with cancer is over, and hopefully that chapter and book are closed. I will never forget that journey and how much we depended on Joy and the staff at St. Mary’s to care for us. The nurses on that floor, along with our devoted oncology doctors, were critical to the care not only of our son, but also of us, his family. Joy exemplifies the healing and devoted care that a nurse can bring to a child, even as he faces death.