The Ability to Empower A Patient

Finalist essay for CURE’s 2011 Extraordinary Healer Award contest.

Every cancer patient follows a different path towards an uncertain destination. Each journey is as unique as the cluster of abnormal cells that provide a diagnosis.

For my husband Leigh, the journey began in 2004 when abnormal blood counts landed him at his physician’s office for a series of tests. The diagnosis came soon after, and we were swept into weeks of visits to different specialists, more tests, difficult choices to make and, eventually, a treatment plan to follow.

Leigh’s illness required frequent blood transfusions that were administered on the oncology unit of our local hospital. It was there that he met a wonderful team of oncology nurses and the extraordinary Robert Martinez.

Robert had his own unique journey that led him to eventually become Leigh’s oncology nurse. Around the same time that Robert became eligible for early retirement after working for Verizon for 33 years, a relative became ill and required home nursing care. Robert’s family pitched in to help as much as they could. Afterwards, his daughter came to him with her plan to enroll in nursing school. As they talked, he weighed his own options for what he might do after retirement, and thought to himself, “Why not?” Robert and his daughter enrolled in nursing school together, graduated together, and now both are oncology nurses at Memorial Regional Medical Center.

These factors alone could make Robert stand out, but he brings so much more to his job performance than energy, maturity and a calling to change careers at a time in life when most people are coasting. His quiet, gentle manner is soothing to patients and their families, before he even opens his mouth to speak. He answers questions in a calm, knowledgeable way. When you need him, he is there. When you need uninterrupted quiet to rebuild strength, he somehow knows. He is always thorough and professional, assisting his patients in a gentle way that seems to make them feel less dependent, always conscious of helping to preserve their dignity.

As Leigh’s disease progressed and the transfusions became more frequent, Robert would always stop in to visit briefly to say “hello” even when he was not assigned to care for Leigh that day. Robert came to be more to Leigh than a nurse. He became someone Leigh trusted. He became someone he knew would be honest with him even when the truth was hard to deliver. He became a friend.

They would chat about their families, fishing trips, pets or whatever came to mind. It isn’t unusual for nurses to avoid building personal relationships with patients having a serious illness. It is an understandable form of self-preservation. A nurse having the remarkable strength to become a patient’s friend, in spite of the risks, truly is an extraordinary healer.

Their friendship had clear benefits for Leigh. The hospital stopped being just a place associated with fear and uncertainty. He knew that every time a treatment complication or an infection sent him back to the oncology unit, there would be someone there who cared about him as a person and not just as a patient. It became less stressful for me as well, because I knew that when Leigh was at the hospital when I couldn’t be, he was in good hands.

Eventually, when all other forms of treatment failed, Leigh’s best chance for recovery was a bone marrow transplant. To be eligible for the surgery, he needed to regain enough weight and strength to withstand the all the stresses of the procedure.

For many months, we tried everything possible to build him back up enough to have the transplant. When Leigh came in to the hospital for his transfusions, Robert would bring him different supplements and suggest things for us to try at home. Robert never pushed or tried to bully Leigh into eating. He gave him choices, and then let it go.

Maybe, in some way, his ability to empower a patient to make as many of their own choices as possible is a big part of what makes Robert unique. One of the most frightening things about treatment for any illness, but especially cancer, is the feeling of loss of control. It might be simply that Robert has the strength and insight to be able to treat his patients the way he would want to be treated.

After six years of fighting against the progression of his disease, Leigh came to the point when the focus of his treatment had to shift from pursuit of a cure to the control of his symptoms in order to maintain his best possible quality of life. He was hospitalized with a series of infections, each one leaving him weaker, and with less strength to endure the next. Leigh’s final stay on the oncology unit came in March of 2010. With no strength left to fight, Leigh began to slip away. Robert came in on his day off and stayed with him, doing everything he could think of to make him comfortable. He knew that when Leigh rested at home, our cat Gertie always slept in his lap, so he suggested we go get her and bring her to his room. She curled up next to him in the hospital bed, and they slept.

The best any of us can hope for on any journey in life is to have companions along the way who enrich our lives, bring us comfort, and are there for us when we need them. Robert Martinez accompanied Leigh, bringing light to his darkest of days, and a measure of healing to all of us who traveled along.