Oncology's angels


New Orleans is hosting the Oncology Nursing Society Congress this year, which means the angel energy is at an all time high here as thousands of nurses arrive from across the United States. On Thursday evening CURE presents one nurse with the Extraordinary Healer award, an annual honor we bestow on one of three finalists from hundreds of nurses nominated by our readers. And it does take people with something special to become oncology nurses. They could have chosen nursing careers that required much less in the way of emotional commitment than working with cancer patients, and yet they are fiercely committed to their patients whether as inpatient nurses or outpatient chemo nurses or nurse practitioners or oncology nurse specialists. At one time I spoke to small groups of oncology nurses on a regular basis, and I used to begin by passing out small pads of paper and asking them to write down why they had chosen oncology nursing. I would give them about 5 minutes and then tell them to stop writing. Without taking up what they had written, I would tell them that I knew what they had written – I knew why they had become oncology nurses."You became oncology nurses because you really like the hours, right?" I would say, and they would laugh and shake their heads at the absurdity. "Oh," I said, "That's right, it's because you like the pay," and again they would elbow each other in unspoken agreement that money was never enough and it had nothing to do with it. "No," I would say in response to them, "then it has to be that you really like body fluids." This would set them laughing. "No, that's not it."And then I would get serious and tell them what I did know they had written.They were "called" in one of any number of ways to oncology nursing. A family member had died of cancer, prompting a vow that they would be there for patients in their lives – or they had chosen oncology after nursing school when one patient had touched them during that part of training when they didn't know what area they wanted. And my favorite – always when I spoke there would be in any group of 20 nurses at least two who had vowed they would NEVER do oncology. They hated it. They would do anything else, but not oncology. And then for some reason they ended up in oncology.I heard stories about returning from maternity leave and oncology was the only opening and they agreed to it, "only until something else came up" and that was 25 years ago. Or, they wanted a transfer from an existing job because of one reason or another and the only opening was in oncology and they took it until something else opened up and now knew they were meant to be there. That's why I say the angel energy is high this week. These men and women are the chosen nurses to be there for us at the worst time of our lives, when we are frightened, sick, angry, confused and, did I say terrified. They may have chosen oncology or it may have chosen them, but it's where they belong and they know it. And so do we.

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