One of Cancer's Special "Gifts"

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Finalist essay written by Greg Frazee nominating nurse Annette Graham, NP, AOCNP, from the Virginia Cancer Institute, for CURE's 2010 Extraordinary Healer Award contest.

After four days of hospitalization, a needle aspiration biopsy of the newly diagnosed Non-Hodgkin lymphoma tumor located in my abdomen, a PET scan, a MUGA scan, discussions about my chemotherapy treatment and the effects it would have on me, and an insertion of a power port, I was facing my final and most intimidating test. I was about to be introduced to Annette Graham. She would be administering my bone marrow biopsy.

As I progressed through the days after my diagnosis, anxiety would overwhelm me, mostly as a result of my lack of knowledge about the procedures and processes I would be facing. Some of the tests were difficult, and in my mind, I knew they were not as difficult as the looming bone marrow biopsy.

An initial question I began asking all of the caregivers I encountered in the beginning was, “Why did you choose such a difficult profession?” I asked the question out of curiosity, and I asked it to assure myself that the person with whom I was about to interact with was indeed compassionate and would understand my situation.

Annette’s reply was, “I’ve known too many people and have been personally affected by the impact of cancer on others. I want to make their lives better.”

With apologies to Theodor Seuss Geisel, the following is a recap of my first meeting with Annette Graham:

“The first time we met, I remember distinctly.

She spoke words assuring, she delivered them succinctly.

You may feel some pain, you may feel a pinch.

My first bone marrow biopsy, with Annette, was a cinch!”

Due to my anxiety about my first bone marrow biopsy, I did not immediately absorb the compassion and kindness contained in the person of Annette. Soon after that, I did. At our second meeting, when we started discussing the emotional impact of my recent diagnosis, I began to experience her entire skill set.

During that meeting, she asked, “Have you cried yet?” The question took me a bit by surprise. How did she know that I wanted to? I replied, “You know, Annette, I haven’t had a good cry since I was a kid. I recognize the therapeutic relief that a good cry would provide, however, I’m a middle-aged guy. I don’t do those things.” She replied, “Maybe you should work on that. It would be good for you.”

I knew at that very moment, we were in this as a team.

In subsequent meetings, I expressed to her that I thought some individuals, in my group of family and friends surrounding me with care and concern, were misinformed about how to talk to me and go through this process with me. She explained that none of us had done this before, and as I would need to rely on the kindness of others to support me, I needed to extend grace to them in order to help them when they stumbled through the process.

As my treatment progressed, it became apparent that I would require stem cell transplantation therapy. My chemotherapy treatments would require overnight stays in the hospital for the pre-transplantation treatments and then a three-week stay in the hospital for the stem cell treatment.

In a meeting when we discussed what was ahead of me, Annette informed me that when any of her patients are admitted to the hospital, she gives them a “comfort gift” to take with them to the hospital. The gift would be in the form of a stuffed teddy bear. I advised her that I politely disagreed with the need for me to have a “comfort gift.”

“Maybe you don’t,” she replied, “but I feel the need to bust your chops a little bit.” What could I say? I humbly accepted the gift and took it to the hospital each time I was admitted for treatment. I found myself proudly telling the story behind the gift and telling the story of the goodness of the person who gave it to me.

Finally, as the calendar date of my admission to the hospital for the stem cell transplantation portion of my treatment approached, my anxiety heightened. I was concerned about being treated at a large research hospital versus being accustomed to treatment in the comfortable confines of a clinic.

As I expressed my concern to Annette, she replied, “It’s intimidating, I know. However, it is the best treatment for you. Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that you will go there and make the experience a special one for yourself and those you meet, as you have done here in the clinic.” I mumbled a “thank you” for her compliment. A day later, as I recalled the conversation in my mind, I acknowledged that Annette had indeed given me a compliment, but even more importantly, she had given me a challenge that I needed.

There are countless other anecdotes to share. When I recall them, I see Annette looking at me with compassion, understanding, challenges, camaraderie, and overwhelming kindness. I treasure the gift of her person.

“For other patients with challenges, I hope they have met,

A person of quality like my nurse, Annette.”