"Are you here alone? Do you have any family with you?" the resident asked me. My heart began to beat faster. Yes, I was alone. I was always alone. I was the single mother of 7-year-old girl.
“ARE YOU HERE ALONE? Do you have any family with you?” the resident asked me. My heart began to beat faster. Yes, I was alone. I was always alone. I was the single mother of 7-year-old girl.
THE RESIDENT WENT ON TO SAY, “Your lung scan shows what seems to be metastatic disease.” I didn’t understand at first. “You mean you found a spot?” I asked. “Are you saying it’s cancer? Could there be a mistake? Could it be pneumonia? A fungus?” I kept firing questions.
She looked at me and said, “I don’t think so. There is just too much of it.”
What did this mean? Was I going to die this week or next month? My worst nightmare had come true. That moment will be forever frozen in time. I can remember every single detail.
PHOTO BY HEATHER EIDSON
Ginger Tam with Irene Haapoja, RN, MS, AOCN [right]
After that all I could say was, “Oh God, my daughter!”
I kept repeating it over and over, “Are you sure? My Lord, my daughter.”
The resident sat there for a short while and then told me to wait while she paged the social worker. She then left me alone for what seemed an eternity. She had gone on to take care of other patients. I sat there in shock and alone with my heart breaking for my daughter and the pain she would have to endure. I was also the caregiver to my 84-year-old mother.
I began to panic and cry out, “God, please help me. What do I do now?”
Then, in a very small moment of clarity, I realized I was still sitting alone in room having just been told my lungs were full of cancer. At that moment I knew something was really wrong. Shouldn’t
someone be here with me telling me what we do now? That there is hope?
I realized I needed to get out of there. I knew I wanted to fight, and I had to find the right place to do it.
I had to fight for my daughter. I walked out alone in slow motion, and I never looked back.
That same night, I called a friend to sit with me. She told me about a doctor at Rush University Medical Center, Dr. Philip Bonomi, one of the top oncologists in the country. I made an appointment for the next day.
From the moment I set foot at Rush, I was never alone again. I met Irene who saw and understood my unique circumstances. She made sure I knew their team was going to fight this with me. She gave me her cell phone number and said call anytime.
She also had a daughter about the same age as mine. She showed sincere concern for her, as well as me. She made sure I had friends to help me at home and my mother while she set me up with counseling right away. The counselor was in the room within five minutes.
Irene Haapoja, RN, AOCN, I prefer to call her advanced practitioner, sets the bar with her knowledge and expertise. With a cancer diagnosis, we all know the timing in which we receive treatment can be critical. Whenever my treatment was threatened by insurance, the problem would somehow miraculously disappear.
I knew Irene had gotten on the phone and worked her magic. She never gave me a minute to worry about it.
I remember one day going for chemo and was told my insurance was canceled. Irene didn’t flinch. I don’t know how she did it but she made sure I did not leave that day without treatment.
When I needed clinical trials, Irene gave me insight and made sure they happened. Her knowledge of how the system works was invaluable. Irene made sure all of my records and the proper paperwork were done correctly and on time even if it meant working on her days off.
When the screening process on a trial did not go well, I was sent home to let my cancer progress more. I lost the last open slot in the country that day. The next slot would not be available for months,
and that was too long for me.
Irene suggested I contact all the sites with that trial and try to get on a waiting list. The next day I tried the sites directly, and found one that was adding a spot that day! They had just gotten an email from the sponsoring drug company as I was calling. If it hadn’t been for Irene, I would have missed that.
As a single mom, having enough on my plate, any of these things could have caused me enormous stress. But Irene sees a big part of her job as keeping her patients from having any stress. I have never seen her anything but calm. Even in crisis she doesn’t change. I think she just moves a little faster. I am convinced it is a special gene, of which I certainly do not have, or she is an angel.
She made it possible for my daughter to set up a table at a fundraising event to sell Rainbow Loom bracelets for lung cancer awareness. She knew how important it was to have Amelia, my daughter, involved in my healing process.
Irene held my hand through it all and still does. There have been hundreds of phone calls and texts over the past three years. On my tough days, she lets me cry and reassures me there will be another plan when we need it. On my good days, we laugh together. If I don’t call or text for a couple of weeks, which almost never happens, she will send me a text and ask me, “Don’t you love me anymore?”
Being a single mom facing the fight for my life against stage 4 lung cancer, I don’t know how I would have done this without Irene. I wish we all could have advocates and friends like her. Thanks to her, I am never alone.