Oncology Nurses Tend To The Unspoken Needs Of Patients with Cancer

October 26, 2020
Michelle Sottile, B.S.N., RN, OCN

Extraordinary Healer®, Extraordinary Healer® Vol. 14, Volume 14,

Oncology nurses tend to the needs of patients with cancer with great care, but they also tend to the unspoken needs of their patients.

Every day at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, I have the privilege of being surrounded by extraordinary people. When I reflect on exactly what it means to be an extraordinary healer, one person in particular comes to mind. Ellen Mulkerrins, B.S.N., RN, OCN, is a dynamic, compassionate and empathetic nurse who leaves a grin on the face of each of her patients.

Ellen has many exceptional qualities. Her focus is on the highest standard of patient care. I have seen this consistently while working side by side with her in many challenging and difficult patient and family situations. But I personally saw Ellen’s true gift when she cared for my own family member. Nothing was too much for her to make sure my family member was comfortable, monitored closely and, especially, could laugh, making his hospital stay easier. Her compassion, kindness and dedication will never be forgotten.

One of the things that set Ellen apart from other nurses is her ability to sense unspoken needs. As the unit representative for the supportive care committee, Ellen places the utmost importance on the care of the suffering and dying patient. No one will ever forget how she made one of her patients’ last requests possible. This patient came into the hospital, took a turn for the worse and spent the remainder of his life there. He formed a special bond with Ellen.

Between Ellen as his nurse and the Hulk doll that never left his side, he said he felt as secure as could be. He confided in Ellen, telling her that the one thing he regretted was not marrying his lifelong partner. One afternoon, Ellen coordinated a wedding ceremony in the room. Complete with music, flowers and two nurses walking the woman down the “aisle,” the event left us all with tears running down our faces and a sense of warmth. Before Ellen completed his care, the patient entrusted his precious Hulk doll to her, telling her that he now had all that he needed.

Ellen not only provides exemplary care for patients but also truly embodies the “care of colleague” tenet of our Memorial Sloan Kettering professional practice model on relationship- based care. Ellen and I were co-chairs for our inpatient nursing recruitment, retention and recognition council, through which she worked tirelessly to make sure that nurses received recognition for excellence in care.

During her time as co-chair, she helped support and expand the department’s recognition programs, including the Daisy Award for Extraordinary Nurses and our Shining Star Award for exceptional ancillary staff. Additionally, she leveraged the council structure to make each inpatient unit the best environment in which nurses can prac- tice. Ellen’s dedication and compassion for both patients and colleagues are beyond reproach, and she truly exemplifies the attributes of an extraordinary healer.

The words below, from some of Ellen’s other colleagues, describe the impact she leaves on all she meets.

Virginia Pfeifer, B.S.N., RN, OCN, CWOCN: To Ellen, caring for patients is not just a job but a passion. She treats each patient as if they were her own family. There is no request from a patient that is too big for Ellen. If there is anything she has taught our staff over the years, it’s that the small things count. All her patients are left smiling, asking for pillows to brace their fresh surgical incisions as they try not to laugh. No matter how difficult the day, Ellen’s passion and joy for the patients and their families is evident. We always tell Ellen that her sense of humor is unprecedented. It is a trait that has lifted the spirits of even the most downcast patients.

She embodies the qualities of a nurse who goes above and beyond in everything she does, whether it be leadership, patient care or care of a colleague. Everyone Ellen encounters is left with a sense of comfort and a lifted spirit. Ellen has a way of getting to the heart of the matter and finding out what is most important to the patient. She not only completes the necessary tasks to make the patient well but also tends to the unspoken needs.

Ellen takes care of her patients in a holistic manner, treating their emotional needs with the same level of intentionality as their physical ones. The bonds she forms with her patients last beyond their stays.

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