May 26, 2014

Be Your Best (Memoirs of a Cancer Nurse)

While getting report from the night nurse on one of my first days working at MD Anderson Cancer Center, I glanced into a patient room and noticed an elderly lady sitting up in bed with her bedside table close-by, looking in the mirror, and applying her make-up.  "Wow," I remarked to the nurse who was giving me report, "it's not even 7am and that lady is not only awake, she's putting on her make-up and doing her hair!"
"That's Mrs. J," my colleague stated. "She's one of our regulars and is always up bright and early when she's here.  She makes sure she has walked the halls for exercise and gotten herself looking nice by the time her husband gets here in the morning."
I was impressed.  Here she was: with cancer, in the hospital to get chemotherapy, having every excuse to stay in bed, sleep in, and have bed-head, yet here she was: up before dawn getting her morning beauty and exercise regimen done!  Wow!

As I got to know her better during the days I'd have her as a patient, I learned that she was even more impressive than I originally thought!  After walking the halls of the hospital every morning, she returned to her room to order breakfast.    As anyone who is well-acquainted with cancer knows, cancer patients undergoing treatment seldom have a great appetite and have a hard time eating.  Sometimes ice cream is all a patient can stomach at 8am, and MD Anderson provides just about any type of cuisine you can imagine at any time of day for their patients to help them get as many calories and nourishment as they can while getting treatment (because some calories is better than none at all).
Despite the fact that she could have had a giant waffle drizzled in syrup for breakfast every day, Mrs. J usually had oatmeal, a bowl of fruit, and an egg; she was mindful of eating as healthy as she could and made sure to drink plenty in order to stay hydrated.
In addition to the excellent care she took of her body and her appearance, Mrs. J was impressive in how kind and gracious she was.  I never saw or heard her complain.  She was always upbeat and didn't let life's setbacks keep her from being her best.  Even as her health deteriorated and she was not longer able to go for early morning walks, she still did everything she was physically able to and would at least get up and ready and walk around her room for a little exercise, and though her cute little husband with a deep, southern accent usually showed up wearing dirty overalls and with dirt underneath his fingernails, Mrs. J made sure she looked her absolute best for her sweetheart.


Another one of our regular patients who became one of my absolute favorites, was Mr. M.  He was a very tall and large man in his late 60's with progressed kidney cancer.  His declining health caused him to retain a lot of water in his arms and legs, making him look even larger than he already was.  He had a difficult time getting up out of bed at all because he was so weak and his arms and legs were so heavy.  Consequently, he needed a lot of care and help that his petite wife could not physically give him by herself and his call light was constantly going off as he frequently needed to use the restroom or be scooted up into a more comfortable position in bed .  However, I never once felt annoyed at needing to run into his room and help him because I enjoyed him so much.
Mr. M reminded me of the elderly "Edward Bloom" from the movie "Big Fish". He was quirky and hilarious and had a loud and boisterous voice.  Whenever I came into his room, he'd greet me loudly in his southern accent with a "Hi, sugar!"  I'm sure it was awfully frustrating for him to need so much help so often (we're talking he needed to use that urinal several times an hour!), but he never let his frustration show and he never stopped being the kindest and most light-hearted patient I think I've ever had.
I believe he was on our floor for at least a month or two straight before going home on hospice, so everyone on the floor got to know him really well.  Even on the days when I wasn't his nurse, I'd always make time to stop in his room and say hello.
The floor definitely seemed quieter and less cheerful after he left.....

The sweet mother with colon cancer who I had met on my first day at MD Anderson began coming to us once a month for her treatments, staying between 4-7 days each time.  She became fast friends with another one of our young colon cancer patients who was also a mom.  They called each other "soul sisters".  One was a sweet, caucasian school teacher from the midwest, the other a kind yet sassy stay-at-home African-American mom from the south.  They were so different, yet were bonded by their disease and fight to live.  They'd walk the halls in their hospital gowns and IV poles.  They'd visit each other in their rooms and each lunch together or watch TV shows together.  Genuine BFF's.  Whenever one was admitted to the floor for treatments, she would always ask if the other were on the floor, too.
 It made me smile to see the two of them together, always thinking of and concerned for the other.  "You're making sure my friend is being taken good care of?" the one would ask me, smiling.
I forget which one got really ill and stopped treatments first, but when the day came that we sent her home, not only was my heart breaking for the fact that her cancer was so far progressed and that there was nothing more we could do for her, but my heart broke for her friend who would no longer have that smiling and trusty pal to run around the hospital floor with and to check up on....


Mrs. J with her tenacity to keep herself healthy and looking presentable for her farm-boy husband.
 Mr. M with his cheery, booming voice and flirtatious sweet-talking with the nurses.
 My two colon cancer moms who were ever concerned about the other's health and happiness no matter what was going on with themselves personally.

All three of these patients impressed me with their daily habit of always being their best.  Heaven knows that cancer is a physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually draining thing to go through.  I gave all my patients a free pass to be grumpy, sad, scared, and to refuse brushing their teeth if they were having a really hard day.  If a patient was frustrated/tired/scared over their situation and they chose to take it out on me by yelling at me or being demanding or being rude, I rarely got upset because I can only imagine what a difficult thing they were going through.
Who's to say I wouldn't respond in the same way?
However, I felt very inspired by those patients who still chose to be their best and think of and love others before themselves.  Their influence continues to drive me to be my best today (even though I continually fall short).  Being your best, remaining positive and kind even during difficult circumstances is--I have no doubt--a recipe for a longer and happier life.  I'm sure it wasn't easy for any of my patients to remain so positive, so kind, or so diligent to remaining active and as healthy as possible, but I know that they all outlived the prognosis the doctors gave them, and I think they remained happier and healthier for far longer.  Plus, they definitely left their mark on the hearts of the staff there on P-12 and I doubt I'm the only one who feels pushed to be better because of them.

There are so many life lessons I learned while caring for my patients and MD Anderson, and I hope I never forget the ones that Mrs. J, Mr. M, and my two cancer mamas taught me: stay active, stay healthy, no excuses, be positive, greet others with kindness, look for others to serve in your own times of trial, make the best of a bad situation.
Be your best. 

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