I always say that I can't remember the name of my mom's oncologist, but I'll always remember the names of the nurses who regularly cared for her: Brittany, Judith, Melissa, and Jason.
My mom was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) on July 26, 2013. As in most cases, she went to the hospital for a seemingly common reason, in this instance it was shortness of breath, and while running tests, they discovered she had leukemia. She was transferred to UPMC Shadyside in Pittsburgh for chemotherapy. Because AML is an aggressive form of cancer, she was prescribed an aggressive form of treatment referred to as 7/3. She would be given two different forms of chemotherapy through her port: one would run 24 hours a day for seven days and the other she would receive once a day for three days. The goal was for her to return to the hospital monthly to receive maintenance chemo. But because of complications from both the treatment and disease, my mom never came home and passed away on February 18, 2014. She was 65 years old.
The complications affected every part of her body. During her eight-month stay, she had liver, kidney, and stomach issues at some points in time and eventually stopped eating entirely. This later led to her receiving a feeding tube. As time went on, she began to lose her mental faculties until she stopped speaking and only stared off into the distance. She no longer recognized my brother and me and didn’t respond to any conversation. Throughout everything, this was probably the hardest thing to see happen. My vibrant, talkative, jovial mother could no longer communicate.
During those eight months, I was her primary caregiver and was with her in the hospital every single day. Those days were spent in her room, interacting with her nurses and acting as her advocate. Because of these interactions, I have a special place in my heart for oncology nurses.
Brittany was the nurse who first administered my mom's chemotherapy. At the time, my mom and I were obviously scared. Brittany came in prior and discussed our concerns and answered any questions that we could possibly think of asking. After she was finished administering, she washed her hands, cleaned everything, and sat back down to hold my mom's hand. She was wonderful, and this moment will forever remain in my mind. From that point on, any time Brittany was my mom's nurse, she would call me. Every single day, she would take time from her hectic daily schedule to call and update me on what was going on: whether my mom ate, any issues she had overnight, if she was talking and responding positively to conversation, or what doctors visited and what information they had provided. On a particularly bad day when it became clear that treatment wasn't working, Brittany sat in the room with me and cried. She didn't just sit with me while I cried, she cried with me.
On more than one occasion, Brittany would be close by or in the room when the oncologist came in. She knew that I struggled with him as a communicator and would always come in immediately after he left to discuss things with me, make sure I knew what was going on, and calm me down in the process.
Eventually, the hospital had to discharge my mother because she wasn’t getting any better and her insurance wouldn’t continue to cover her stay. She was transferred to a nursing home, where she wouldn't have the constant care of an oncology nurse. However, on three different occasions she needed to be transferred back to the hospital. Each time she was sent back, she was put in a different floor or location. But each time it happened, the nurses who originally cared for her found out and came to see my mom. They weren’t going to be her nurse, but they cared enough to visit with us and try to talk with her.
When my mom passed away, I sent an email to those original nurses explaining what had happened. Every single one of them replied to me with a lengthy response that included memories of my mother and how much they cared about her. I then received a card at the funeral home from them all. All of this and she hadn't been a patient of theirs in at least two months.
I became an employee at ONS after my experience with oncology nurses. As an employee at ONS, I'm reminded each day why it matters that we celebrate Oncology Nursing Month every May, that we work to bring you the best education, and that we honor nurses every year at Congress. We do this because of you. Because you were amazing to my mom and my family. Because I'll never forget your names.