Saying Goodbye to Caring Cancer Health Care Providers

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Rachelle’s unexpected departure reminded me I need to express my appreciation to these special, beloved providers now.

cartoon drawing of cancer survivor and blogger, Kelly Irvin

I walk into my clinical trials clinic and while the receptionist is putting the ID band on my wrist, I ask her if I can talk to Rachelle. She’s the medical assistant who does the triage duties like take my temperature and blood pressure, UAs and then draws my labs.

“Oh, Rachelle’s not with us anymore.” The receptionist actually squeezes my hand as if she knows she’s delivering bad news. “She moved back to Louisiana.”

“No. No, say ain’t so.” But it is so. And I’m crushed.

After more than two years of greeting me with a smile that stretched for a city block, Rachelle is gone. She’s an amazon of a woman who always, always wears purple with that smile. Purple scrubs, purple sneakers, purple ribbons in her long dreadlocks and purple nail polish. I couldn’t help but smile every time I saw her.

Rachelle couldn’t change the fact that I’m a hard stick and drawing labs sucks for me. But she could distract me with chit-chat and do her best not to prolong the digging around trying to find a vein. I appreciated that. Not all health care providers are as kind, compassionate and caring. I truly value the ones who are and mourn them when they move on.

I can’t be the only patient living with metastatic cancer who has had this experience of not getting to say goodbye to health care providers who’ve made this journey a little easier. At least when my first oncologist retired, she announced it in advance. I admit it. I cried. But I had a chance to express my appreciation for the five years Dr. Kazhdan kept me alive and give her one last hug with a going-away gift.

Not so with her medical assistant, Shaa, who moved away four years into my cancer journey. One day she was simply gone after years of cutting through a big clinic’s bureaucratic red tape for me, staying after hours to work out specialty prescription snafus and calling me back when others didn’t. Shaa didn’t owe me a goodbye. She didn’t have an obligation. Yet it hurt.

I wonder if it’s easier for care providers to move on without goodbyes. I know they get attached to patients, as much as they try to maintain professional distances. As one nurse told me, she “blubbered” when she found out a patient had died.

Health care providers have lives. They get promoted. They take better jobs. They have babies and decide to focus on being mommies. Their spouses get jobs in other cities. They retire. The thing is, I’m a patient with stage 4 ovarian cancer in treatment for the rest of my life. It’s possible I might move, but not likely, not when I’m in clinical trials. I don’t get to move on. I’m not saying that to elicit pity, but to try to explain why this is so hard.

Rachelle’s unexpected departure reminded me I need to express my appreciation to these special, beloved providers now. I shouldn’t wait until Nurse Appreciation Day to tell nurses Mel, Marsha, Dana, Dan, Abigail and Marisa how much their kindness means to me. Marsha has cared for me off and on for seven years. She’s my hero. I’m thankful for Dr. Tolcher, Dr. Sommerhalder, and Dr. Rodriguez and all the clinic’s staff people. I need to tell them that today.

I’d also like to tell them they’re not allowed to quit, transfer, or retire, but I know I don’t get to do that. I’ll try to focus on this season and be happy for them when they do go, to wish them well, to be glad I was blessed to know them even if it was only for a season. It’s the least I can do.

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