When I got my first job out of nursing school at age 21 and walked onto the Blood and Marrow Transplant (BMT) Unit at UR Medicine’s Wilmot Cancer Institute, I knew I was home.
Every patient I’ve encountered has impacted my life in some way. Although my job is physically, mentally and emotionally challenging, it allows me to become the best nurse I can be and to make a difference in someone’s life, sometimes with just a single encounter.
When describing how it feels to be an oncology nurse, I use the word humble. The path of cancer is disturbing and can come into a person’s life without warning. I have the privilege to care for some of the most wonderful people. I am humbled by their strength, courage and continued determination to push forward in life.
Oncology nurses never leave work asking themselves, “Did I make a difference in someone’s life today?” You don’t have to ask; you know you did. I have held a dying 24-year-old’s hand, comforting those around, making what is the most difficult time in the loved one’s life to some degree less painful. Having these interactions with patients and their families remind me how fragile life really is. These relationships remind me to be a better person: To be thankful always, to enjoy today, to live today, and to relish the time you have left because it can be fleeting.
When a patient’s time has been called, the only thing you want to do is cry and sit on the floor. You leave the family alone in the room, allowing the final goodbyes to conclude as you rush into the next situation. Nurses perform their duties with a smile. A sense of efficiency and what could sometimes seem like indifference. You will not see their calmness falter. Loved ones will not see what is underneath that seamless smile. You won’t see the grief, the whirlwind of emotions, or the heartache on the drive home from work after losing a patient. Families will likely never know the loss that their nurse experienced.
Perspective has helped me manage these emotions because it is the only thing you have control over. You do not have control of the situation, but you have a choice about how you view it.
A 22-year-old patient drove home this point for me and changed how I look at life. After going to her primary care doctor for feeling a lump in her neck, this patient thought she was going to receive antibiotics for an infection; nothing to worry about.
However, her symptoms only got worse as time progressed, with night sweats and radiating pain. Soon, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) and landed at the hospital where her life changed forever. Her first round of chemo would mean a 30-day stay in the hospital. Shock, confusion, and frustration filled her hospital room. As a nurse who is also 22 years old, I had no words. What do you say to a patient who was just diagnosed? “I’m sorry” just doesn’t seem to cut it.
This is one aspect in nursing that I still continue to struggle with. You do not want to bother the family during this difficult time but you want to be able to show that you are there for them in their desperate time of need. It is most important for you to be supportive and listen. That in itself is an abundance of help for that family.
My heart has never been so full working at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center. My job reminds me to be grateful for every day and for all the little things in life: Being able to walk, go to work, spend time with family, and even just breathe.