My story began when I was 49 years young and told I had Stage IV colorectal cancer. That was almost 12 years ago, and today I am one of the fortunate ones—not only has it been almost 12 more years of living, but my oncologist has used the word “cured”. Like most cancer patients and survivors, I have endured a lot, but I also have much to be grateful for and have been able to express that gratitude to many throughout my journey. However, there is one group of people who may not know how thankful I am for them. That group is all of the registered nurses throughout my 12-year journey.
Like other significant dates in your life that you always remember, such as birthdays and anniversaries, September 5, 2006, will be forever etched in my brain as the day I was diagnosed with cancer. I had just completed my doctorate degree and was excited to enter a new career track. My primary care provider ran some routine blood tests in anticipation of my upcoming physical and to my surprise I was anemic. The series of tests and scans to follow were a whirlwind and then the final diagnosis: colorectal cancer with metastasis to the liver. I remember my intense fear and many questions: Will I die? Will I tolerate the chemotherapy, radiation and surgery? Will I have long-term side effects? The list went on and on. But right now I do not want to tell you about my journey (maybe another time) or how as a nurse I was so fearful because I knew and read too much. Instead, I want to tell you about the nurses who entered my life because of my diagnosis and took care of me in every sense of the word.
To put my story into context, before my diagnosis, my relationship with nurses was as a colleague. I had no major illnesses or conditions, never took any medications (and still do not), and had never been hospitalized so while I hope I practiced and taught novice nurses how they should act, I had never experienced the practice of nursing as acutely as I did when I was the “patient”.
Nurses entered my life from all directions, such as the nurse manager at the oncology center who met me the first week of my diagnosis and gently began to tell me what to expect. I think I only heard one word she said, but her voice was calm, confident, and reassuring. When I saw her 2 days later for my first chemotherapy treatment, it was that calmness and confidence that made it a bit easier. Throughout the first year, I would visit the infusion center at least twice a week: for my 6-hour chemo infusions, to be hooked up to my continuous chemo drip for 2 days at home, to be disconnected, or just for blood draws; you name it I was at the center and interacting with nurses. It was there that I began to truly understand the art and science of nursing. These nurses knew the science and every possible consideration, and they knew what I needed even before I asked. Sometimes I was just tired and needed to rest, and other times my mind was racing with fears and anxieties and they would sit in my “treatment cubie” and reassure me.
Probably the most poignant nursing experience was when I was in the ICU. It was not because of the urgency of my condition or the treatments needed. It was because I do not recall the two nurses’ names who cared for me or what they looked like, yet to this day I still vividly remember feeling overwhelmingly safe when I smelled peaches or heard the sound of the “crocs” heading my way. I was in the ICU from Friday to Monday during the cold New England month of January. I had a 10-hour surgery to remove the tumor from my colon and half of my liver, and after surgery I was directly admitted to the ICU.
I have very limited recollection of those 3 days. I remember briefly seeing my partner and a dear friend at one point (even though they were there most of the time), and I have a fleeting memory of the room. However, what I do remember is my two nurses by their smells and sounds. One nurse smelled like peaches and my other nurse walked loudly down the hall with his crocs. Whenever the smell or sound was nearby, I had a sense of peace and safety. I knew I was still breathing and feeling; something that was not a given with my diagnosis. To this day, when I smell peaches or hear the clumping sound of crocs, my inner self warms and I feel my emotions getting the best of me with an easy smile and maybe even a lone tear.
Of course there were many other nurses over the years, such as the ED nurses who were given a heads-up by a friend and nurse colleague and stopped in the ICU just to check on me; the pre-op nurse who let me use my computer just before a second emergency surgery so I could clean out my “in-box” and put up my “out of the office” message on my work emails, even though computer use was not allowed; the interventional radiology nurse who believed me when I said my pain was real after an artery was nicked during a chest tube placement; and the nurse who practiced Reiki at the hospital and offered me a well-needed treatment. All of these nurses and many more made me feel safe and treated the body, mind, and spirit.
This is a tribute to all nurses worldwide and not just the two ICU nurses that took care of me. Patients may not remember your name or even what you look like, but they will always remember how you touched their lives in their saddest, happiest, or most fearful times and the professional care you provided to them. They will be forever grateful and will think of you often. It did not matter if I was at the clinic, in the ICU, at the day surgery center, or in the interventional radiology suite, I always knew I was safe and my care was coordinated to meet my needs because of the nurses by my side. I wish I could personally thank all of the nurses in my life but I cannot. I can only hope that every nurse that reads this thinks, “She is talking about me.” And I hope those who cared for me know how grateful I am that they were my nurses. So to nurses everywhere: You will interact with a patient for a moment but be in their minds forever. People will be forever grateful that you were their nurse.
Cheryl Resha is a professor in the department of nursing at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.