Before I became ill, I had wondered why anyone would want to work in a field where they knew people might die. But after meeting some incredible nurses during my cancer journey, I now know why.
Like many people, I had the wrong stereotype about the entire field of medicine and oncology before I became ill myself. I asked myself why anyone in the world would be in a field where they knew people would die. Why not be in a field where most people got better?
After enduring incurable cancer for 10 years, I have accumulated some inspiring answers. For the past couple of years, I have had blood work taken and received shots for treatment every week. I always take a book to read while waiting, but it is much more enlightening to watch the nurses while they work.
The first time I started to change my mind about how oncology nurses felt was after a nurse said to me, “I have been here for 18 years. I have had some of the same patients for 18 years. I meet people like you every day. What is there not to like?” She has now been there 24 years and counting!
The cancer center where I am receiving treatments is expanding and preparing to build a new and exciting state-of-the-art center. This led to some initially uncomfortable changes for me personally. The cancer center where I was a patient was forced to combine with another practice, which meant I would not have the same nurses I knew so well. I was so upset that I wrote a letter to the CEO of the entire hospital (Why go for the lower hierarchy?). I asked him if we could keep the same nurses through the upheaval.
The vice president of cancer services approached me and explained why this was not possible. She then asked me to be on the Patient Advisory Council to assist the architects on ideas for the new center. This gave me a unique chance to be on the planning stages and get a front-row seat. It has been a wonderful experience. I also get to see how hard the administrative nurses work behind the scenes that we patients never see, and the incredibly long hours they put in because they are dedicated to their jobs.
After some glitches in combining the two practices, I found a whole new group of nurses to like. Then, just like that (do not ever get too comfortable), everyone was moved to another floor of the hospital. One end was the infusion and the other end the chemo floor. Again, I was anxious about going to an entire new ward and having all different staff. Because of the upcoming expansion, several new nurses were hired from other parts of the hospital to join the cancer floor.
I had the chance to observe and talk to them, and several of the newer nurses told me they enjoyed this floor more because if they were on surgical or medical or other units, they didn’t have a chance to get to know their patients. Nowadays, patients in the hospital are so sick that there is little interaction before they are shipped off to home or a rehab facility.
They delightedly shared with me that for the first time in their careers, they get to appreciate their patients. They can talk to us while administering treatments and many of the survivors are there every week like me. The nurses meet the families, know about our personal lives, and greet us happily every week. One of the veterans with twenty-plus years told me that when student nurses come through rotation, she tells them to consider oncology and how much she loves it.
I cried when she told me that even after a patient has died, the nurses still play a huge role in their lives. For instance, an elderly patient of this nurse had died and before her death arranged for a corkboard with a number and people’s names. The number corresponded with a gift for that person. This nurse just glowed when talked about her patients.
I also witnessed another nurse break down in tears when parents of a patient who died presented her with a painting the patient had made. It reminded me of my days as a counselor when I received meaningful gifts.
Some of the nurses are readers, and we talk about what I am reading. I even exchange books with them! I get to know all about them and their families and of course their dogs, since I have a retired service dog.
I feel privileged to watch the compassion, love, and joy of the nurses and yes — the sadness when they lose a patient!
I feel the same way about the oncologists. My own is fantastic and I consider her a friend, not socially because of ethics, but emotionally she knows me better than almost anyone. I asked her one time how she handles losing patients. Her reply was priceless, “I have a spirituality that fills me up and allows me to take care of the next patient.”
These wonderful people remind me of a great quote by Ellen DeGeneres, “We need more kindness, more compassion, more joy, and more laughter. I definitely want to contribute to that.” These angels without wings certainly do this every day. I am blessed to know them!