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Kelsey: Thyroid Cancer Survivor

Dedicated to tomorrow's patient
November 2017

Anxiety,  it’s a normal and expected sensation that goes with a caffeine fueled student nurse experience. Little did I know, my anxiety wasn’t caused merely from multiple tests, quizzes and impending deadlines, but rather by something unexpected. On a whim, I stopped at a walk-in clinic to find answers to my recent syncope episodes and what I perceived to be anxiety attacks. Sitting in the exam room, I merely expected to be walking out with anxiety medication and a reassuring pat on the back after this short visit. The copious amount of school work required in my junior year of nursing, was all I had time to think about.  Fortunately, that doctor’s appointment shed some light on the other side of the career I had been dedicating my education.  

An hour and a half away from home, sitting on a paper sheet at the clinic, I numbly received news that I thought only ever was given to “other people”.  On a day that I believed would be like any other day, I received the news that I had a tumor the size of a golf ball growing on my thyroid. I stared into the eyes of my empathetic physician delivering me the news with complete and utter disbelief. The inconceivable thought of calling my parents to inform them consumed me, sending my stomach to the floor.  I had to inform my parents their little girl had papillary thyroid cancer. This terrible disease had been silently growing on my thyroid and surrounding muscles for over 2 years. The tumor was causing the stimulation in my sympathetic nervous system, leading to the perceived panic attacks that I was experiencing. I mistakenly attributing my symptoms to upcoming midterms and first real clinical experience.  My world stopped, as papers, tests and social events no longer seemed to be important enough to be at the center of my universe. My diagnosis sparked a fire that fueled my parents and me in the direction of seeking only the best surgeon and thyroid cancer specialists we could find. I never realized how important patient care really was until it became the center of my world. My life now revolved around obtaining the best medical care for my condition. My family and I visited specialist after specialist, sifting out who we felt comfortable enough to put my life in their hands. We found an immense difference between health care providers. Some providers were cold, unwelcoming and not inclusive of my family, while others welcomed us all in with open arms.  After a great deal of searching, my family and I found the perfect place where we all felt the most comfortable. Just down the road from Quinnipiac University, I found incredible health care providers at Smilow Cancer Hospital.

At Smilow, we found care that I thought to be limited to the pages of my textbooks. Apprehensive and cautious, my family entered an exam room with low expectations and a bucket of questions. A nurse was the first to enter the room and greeted us all with a smile. It was incredible to see just how comforting a smile could be in a situation like this. The nurse introduced herself to every family member in the room, providing us all with the much-needed support this situation demanded. She pulled up a chair and sat directly beside me. She asked me how my family and I were doing. She listened intently and empathetically to my parents, as they struggled to fight back tears while describing our journey to Smilow. Sitting there in that exam chair, I watched as weight dissipated from my parent’s shoulders as they were given a moment to express their overwhelming concern and fear for their little girl. They too were swimming in uncharted waters, desperately seeking a life raft. Smilow was that life raft.

My diagnosis had not only changed the course of my life but had also permanently altered those of the ones I loved. The nurse hugged my mom as tears rolled down her cheeks. For the first time, I was not the only patient in the room. The “C word” had opened wounds that were not visible to the naked eye. That nurse was the first person to see that my family and I were drowning in uncertainty and fear. She looked at us and saw more than just a diagnosis. I realized then my treatment did not solely depend upon the successful removal of the tumor in my neck, but of the love and support of my family.

Quality nursing care was not limited to the palpable needs that came with my diagnosis. It extended to treating the psychological impact cancer had caused. I will never forget the words the nurse spoke to me as my family as I packed up to leave the consultation. She hugged me close and whispered, “You are not your diagnosis, you have cancer. This is not the end of your story. This is just another chapter that you get to write however you’d like”. Walking out of that exam room, I could not have felt more confident in the path I had chosen. With such an incredibly supportive family, and my supportive health care team, I had no doubt I was where I was supposed to be. 

Walking into the hospital on the day of my surgery, I am not quite sure of who was more nervous, me or my family. My family and I gave our final hugs as my OR nurse escorted me to the operating room. I climbed on to the OR table surrounded by large machines, needles and supplies. There were specialists, techs, nurses, and doctors all in the operating room preparing for my surgery. Even through the hustle of preparation going on around me, my OR nurse remained permanently by my side. She was calm and content with a reassuring hand on my shoulder, as she explained who each individual was and why they were here. Many introduced themselves, slightly calming my unsteady nerves. My surgeon entered the room and confirmed for what seemed like the hundredth time why we were here, assuring me that I was in good hands. Just before my whole world went black, everyone in the room stopped. They all took a breath, gathered around me, and took a “Time Out”. They reviewed all the important information needed for a successful surgical outcome. It was something I had learned about in class, but never witnessed in practice. It was comforting to know patient safety techniques I had learned about were actually used in practice. Up until the very last moment of consciousness, I could still feel the reassuring hand of my OR nurse supporting me as my journey continued.  

Fast forward to waking up, I was surrounded by the tired and anxious faces of those I love, my family. Relief washed over me as the weight they had all been shouldering seemed to lift. Patient care technicians came in to take my vitals, as I met my staff nurse for the first time. She introduced herself to the tired faces of those I loved, yet again I witnessed a nurse who demonstrated holistic nursing care with kindness and compassion. She assessed not only the well-being of myself, but also those who had waited anxiously for the four and a half hours of surgery. She was attentive, caring, and always there when I needed something. Even during midnight hours when my vitals had to be taken, there were always apologies as the nurse and tech tried their best to provide a quiet atmosphere when entering and exiting my room. My nurse went above and beyond to ensure my family and I felt as welcome and comfortable as possible. She tirelessly answered the thousands of questions my mom always had prepared on her note pads. Never before had I thought of the impact one nurse could have on a patient and their family. Those caring for me solidified that the countless library hours, late night study sessions, and embarrassing amounts of coffee were all for a purpose greater than myself. I was no longer working for a signature on a piece of paper that would collect dust after graduation. My personal experience had ignited a new passion for a career I realized I wanted to do for the rest of my life; making a difference in the life of another. 

May 2018

My wounds healed as time passed. Senior year had come quickly. I have survived many midterms, finals, papers, projects and personal battles. I have learned many things throughout my nursing journey at Quinnipiac University. My experiences on campus and off have helped me understand nursing in a way I never had before. Being a nurse is not just taking vital signs, giving injections, and discharging patients. Nursing is going above and beyond or the needs of patients. It is finding a connection with patients helping them through the physical, emotional, and spiritual pain they may be experiencing. Nursing treats the whole patient inclusive of family and or significant others who may be shouldering the diagnosis. Patients are not their diagnosis but are human beings who have needs beyond what the eye can see.  Every patient should be seen and heard as an individual with their own uniqueness. Family and friends play a significant role in the wellbeing of patients and need to be an essential part in the patient plan of care. Nursing is being a patient advocate, providing access to support groups and further resources for patients and families. This continued care ensures that quality patient care does not cease after stepping out of those hospital doors. 

My story is not unique. Thankfully, it is not one with many complications, errors, or poor outcomes. It is a story of how nurses providing holistic care changed my life. None of those classes I struggled to keep my eyes open through, the content I memorized, and the quizzes I aced, could have prepared me better to be a nurse than my own diagnosis.  A wise person once told me, that out of something bad, always comes something good. As nurses we are given the rare opportunity to become a part of our patient’s lives. We have the ability to be the light in the darkened world of a patient who is shouldering a diagnosis. Nursing is something I am incredibly proud to make my life’s work. I look forward to always aiming to provide the same incredible care I received during my journey with cancer.  I pray that you too make a patient’s darkest hours some of the most positive and life changing minutes of their life. Take the extra moment to hold that hand, offer that hug, or lend that ear. I assure you, it is the little things, which inevitably change the lives of your patients in the biggest ways. This is nursing on the other side of the bed. 

Learn more about the Endocrine Cancers Program