Learning a New Level of Gratitude as a Patient With Cancer

September 17, 2017

An Extraordinary Healer essay honoring PAM LOWRY, RN, B.S.N., CEN, OCN [MOFFITT CANCER INSTITUTE, TAMPA, FLORIDA]

Pam Lowry, RN, B.S.N., CEN, OCN, and Emerald Cromwell PHOTOS BY CARLIE CHEW

Being told that you have cancer is the most surreal experience of a lifetime. Time stops, voices become incomprehensible and the feeling in your gut is like being dropped from a 50-story building. It’s not the type of thing that happens to you. You watch it in the movies, you read stories about it, but at 40 years old you never dream it is your reality. As a nurse who worked in a hospital, I was prepared for my doctors and nurses to give the information in a very matter-of-fact manner, as they have to maintain a separation, “professionalism,” from the patient to protect both themselves and the patient. In nursing school we are taught “therapeutic” conversation: Ask open-ended questions, reflect, use silence and, most important, don’t give personal information. What I now realize is that this can be effective in many situations, but while caring for someone long-term and embarking on the scariest journey of their life, this could be perceived as cold and callous. People need to feel safe and cared for, more than just a number. There is a different relationship that needs to be developed with patients who are unsure whether they are going to live or die. This comes naturally for Pam Lowry. She became more than my nurse; she became my friend.

Cancer is a club that no one wants a membership card for. What I learned through my journey is that attitude plays the biggest role in healing. Having your friends and family around is, of course, key. I couldn’t imagine surviving without them. But having an unbiased cheerleader on your side who is there from the day of diagnosis is just as important. You need someone that you can express your fears to without worry of hurting their feelings. It’s difficult to talk about dying with your mom or husband because you don’t want to hurt them, but being able to honestly express your fears with someone who can understand their validity, who understands exactly what is going on in your body, was a necessity for me.

The day I was diagnosed, Pam and Dr. Jeffery Russell, M.D., Ph.D., were the second part of the medical team I met with after the surgeon told me that the type of cancer I have is rare and aggressive, and that there is no cure for it — and that, at the current state and size of my tumor, surgery would not be possible. Words and a medical plan at this point were almost impossible to comprehend, and Pam recognized that. From the moment I met her, the best explanation for the feeling I had from her was safety. She had a kindness in her eyes that I’ll never forget. It wasn’t sympathy like everyone else was giving me, but true empathy. This isn’t Nursing 101, this is who she is as a person. I’ll never forget being wheeled out the back door (I was in a hysterical state) and turning around and looking at her. She stood in the hallway staring at me with tears in her eyes. She made me feel safe, regardless of what my fate was, and I knew that I was in the right hands, and that she was going to do everything in her power to take care of me.

I went through six rounds of a very potent chemo regimen, and had two surgeries and six weeks of radiation to get to the point I’m at today. Pam never left my side. She gave me her home phone number and let me call regardless of the hour. Even when I was technically under the care of a different doctor, she always checked in with them to make sure I was being taken care of like a VIP. In the beginning, there were a million questions, yet there wasn’t one time that either I or my family members did not get an immediate response from her. She fought with my insurance company, sometimes for hours, to make sure that I was receiving everything I needed. She met with my children days after diagnosis to ease their fears, and even gave them her email and phone number so they could ask any questions they may have had.

Pam visited me during chemo and came daily on her lunch break while I was hospitalized. She called me after every CT scan, sometimes at 8 at night, instead of making me wait in agony for results all weekend, creating horrible anxiety. I became so accustomed to it I thought it was normal. I realized from my online support group this is not a common practice. She made sure my surgeon called her right after surgery (she was out of town). I could tell how impressed he was with her persistence and how much she cared. When he said, “It’s nice when the nurses reach out to their patients,” it hit me then that not all the nurses he works with do this.

There were many times I wanted to give up, and thought that this diagnosis meant the end of living or the ability to enjoy anything anymore. Pam refused to allow that to become my reality. She encouraged me to continue to live life, and I have learned a new level of gratitude and appreciation because of her. One week after my first chemo, I had plans to take my daughter to her first concert. I thought for sure I would have to cancel. Pam refused for that to happen. She set up a fluid and medication regimen to get me through it. It’s a memory that I treasure and that my daughter will have forever.

Pam is a special woman. There aren’t many people you meet through your lifetime who are doing exactly what they are meant to do with their life. This type of nursing isn’t a job, but a calling. And Pam has found her calling. I am sorry that it took cancer to have met her, but I am blessed to have her in my life.


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