As Andrea and I get ready for our move to Texas I want to reflect on those who have helped us along this "Journey to Healing."
All of you have become our family, all of you do more for your patients then you will ever know. Your smiles and hugs make living with cancer and the difficulty of chemo bearable.
You have all been a blessing to us. Thank you for your friendship, love and support. Thank you for doing a difficult job with such grace. Thank you for your faith in God and your faith in Andrea. I can not express how much each of you have meant to us. I write this to say thanks, and as I read it it seems very inadequate for all you have done. From the moment we walked into SMOC, to the lab, to Doctors appointments, to the chemo room we were touched. We will never forget you, and we will continue to pray for your strength and endurance.
Andrea is outside waiting to go in for her first appointment, just a formality to meet our new oncologist as we had just moved to Goldsboro NC the week prior. But Andrea knew in her spirit that there was something wrong, the pain in her hip had not let up since May and the burning was all to close to the pain expected with bone cancer. I was at work and late to meet Andrea at the doctor’s office. Andrea unable to get the strength to get out of the car, called her friend Lisa who encouraged Andrea as only Lisa can.
Andrea walked into the office and stood before the open glass window and met Myrtle for the first time. As Andrea is checking in, to her left a man comes through the doors from the doctors offices and a woman gets up to meet him and they join right behind Andrea. His words are heavy; "They have done all they can for her." They both hug and begin to cry. Andrea watches this scene play out in the reflection of the glass in front of her. Andrea is frozen. Susan who is passing by at the time along with Myrtle see the impact this is having on Andrea, and asks her to come into the back. They sit Andrea down in Susan's office and Andrea begins to cry, overcome with the events of the past 5 minutes. When she looks up she sees Susan's screen saver on her computer scrolling this text, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." And there we began to realize this was a very special Oncologist, with a very special staff.
To a person, the staff of SMOC never failed to offer a hug, a smile or a word of encouragement to Andrea and me. They are more than cursory hellos or how are you; they are genuine words of compassion and concern. All those who work there have become our family and our friends. If I could sum it up in a sentence I would say, when we leave SMOC we always feel better than when we arrived. Even when we have received bad news, we leave stronger because we feel the love they have for Andrea. They do far more than give chemo at SMOC; they give hope, encouragement, and faith. And that is the real medicine needed when you face cancer.
Finally I have to talk about some of the most incredible woman I have ever met. The nurses of the chemo room. They face one of the toughest work environments I can think of. They treat patients, many, far too many, who will not win the battle with cancer. Everyone at SMOC is a blessing but the chemo nurses are the ones who are with the patients when the reality of cancer hits, when you look up and see the slow dripping of the IV. Day after day they offer a smile, a word of encouragement, an understanding ear. They face the difficulty of becoming friends with someone who may not be alive in a month. The patients all look for hope in their eyes. We all want to know we have a chance or we are winning. We want to be treated as a person, not a leper. Each patient has a story, a life lived, and we all still want to feel valuable and alive. Sitting in the chair you don't want to be written off as a lost cause. You want hope and you want to be valued. Even when it is apparent that the battle is lost, you want to be treated with respect. Life's most personal moments, life and death, plays out in the chemo room and it is nice to know you are with friends and with someone who cares and not just a nurse. I will always remember calling to get the results of Andrea's tumor marker tests. When the results were not what we hoped for, I could hear the sadness in Kristy's voice. It did not change the answer but when you know someone genuinely cares it softens the blow.
Also, in the chemo room you are free to ask the questions you are too afraid to ask the doctor. The chemo nurses are the ones who can answer that personal question you’re too embarrassed to ask anyone else. They are the ones who reassure you that what you are experiencing is normal, whether it be fear or sickness. They have treated many patients and they offer the common sense and reassurance that calms the patient in what can be the scariest time in anyone’s life. They are the angels of the chemo room.
These nurses have put up with Andrea and her entourage of friends every Thursday in the chemo room. Whether it is the pot luck lunches, the birthday parties, or just the laughter of the moment, they have had to step over bags of food, drinks, and baby carriers just to get to Andrea. I know it has made their job harder and at times they have had to ask us to keep the noise down, but they always came over with a smile and allowed Andrea to be blessed with such great support.
Their have been many special moments for Andrea and I in the chemo room, but I will only share a couple.
It was just another Thursday, I can't even really remember when. But I was showing up late and Andrea was with her friends. When I came in I knew something was not right. I went to talk to Tracy, who is the head chemo nurse and as kind a soul as you will ever meet. Confident and good at what she does, with the softest southern draw that just calms any moment. I sat down with Tracy behind the nurses station as she began to explain that they had noticed Andrea's left eye was drooping and her pupils were not dilated the same. Dr Marshall asked to the chemo room to check out Andrea. His conclusion was Andrea needed to stop chemo now and go in for a brain MRI to check for tumors. I will never forget the look on Tracy's face. It was one of sorrow, regret and sadness for having to tell me this. I knew it was serious by the look on her face and I told her, "I don't want to go and have the MRI; I don't want to know if this is the end. There is nothing that can be done so why find out." I just could not tell Andrea. It was happening... the moment I feared. I think that the initial shock of hearing you are dying of cancer is what I have dreaded the most. I think once that is over you must begin to adjust to the reality of it all. Much like you adjust to the first time you hear the doctor say you have cancer. It is the initial blow that is the hardest, and I thought this was it. I was scared and I had nothing to say. I just look at Tracy and she had nothing to say, we just stopped and looked at each other for what seemed 5 minutes. It was has if the conversation never stopped it was carried out without words as we looked at each other each with regret in our eyes. I walked over to Andrea's chair and told her what we had to do. For the first time I climbed into the Lazy Boy with Andrea and held her in my arms. God was merciful and we both feel asleep in each others arms. We were awoken by chemo nurses who told us they were stopping the chemo. It was time for us to go to the hospital for the MRI. Andrea and I spent the hour waiting for the MRI reading scripture and claiming every word and God covered us in grace, we did not fear and we knew the MRI would be normal, even though all Andrea had the classic symptoms of brain tumor. At 9pm that night Dr. Marshall called us at home and told us her scan was normal!
The second story that I will always remember occurred in the spring of 2006. Andrea had finished her first round of Chemo, her hair had grown back but then scans should the cancer had progressed in her liver and lungs. She would have to start back on the harder drugs and would loose her hair for the third time. It was a difficult day to say the least. Dr. Atkins lead Andrea back to the chemo room to tell nurses the new treatment plan. Andrea was in tears standing at the check in desk. As the nurse hung the chemo bags over Andrea I looked up and saw the nurses has signed the bags, "We love you" and drawn hearts on them. When we went to leave for the day the office staff gave Andrea a baseball hat they had all signed with words of encouragement. I can not express the impact of people that care this much. Battling cancer is as much a mental battle as a physical one and acts like these are what gave Andrea the strength to fight.
How everyone at SMOC does their job I will never know. They still take the time to get to know their patients and I’m thankful to call them my friends. I know at times it is hard to become close to a patient, heck its hard as a patient to become close to another patient. Everyone Andrea and I befriended in our first year in chemo has passed away. It's just the reality of the chemo room and the job they all do. It would be far easier for everyone to never become close to us. It would have been much easier for Tracy to tell me bad news if she had not gotten to know me. The sadness in Tracy's eyes spoke of the friendship we had formed and I was glad to have been told such difficult news from a friend rather than a nurse. The detached efficiency of most chemo rooms has to be much easier on the nurses, but it leaves the patients without hope. It is easy to administer chemo and hook up bags of IVs it is totally different to make the dread and fear of the chemo room dissipate with a kind word or smile. Trust me as a patient you can sense when someone is reluctant to get to know you. It is hard to have hope when people are afraid to get close to you.
Somehow Dr. Atkins has formed a staff of people who have a calling. A staff that reflects the positive and hopeful attitude he has. A staff Andrea and I will miss when we move this summer. I doubt it will ever be repeated again, I doubt we will ever find such great people again. They were all a blessing and a gift from God for this season in our life. Each and everyone in that office has made our life richer and better. They will all be missed, because they are all our friends.