1. Webster, Nila


A cancer patient celebrates the healing power of a nurse's empathy.


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Two years ago, when I was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in the ED of a large urban hospital, I asked a nurse if I could borrow her cell phone. Without hesitation, she handed me her Blackberry-this simple gesture was a first indication of the solidarity I'd come to feel with the nurses whose kindnesses have helped me heal.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new windowFigure. Illustration by Annelisa Ochoa.

One such healing encounter came 10 days later, and I believe it changed the course of my treatment. I was on the surgical day unit, awaiting the insertion of a catheter. I was petrified, not only because of the cancer, but because one oncologist had said my trapped lung would never reexpand and the tube would be permanent. Strange as it may sound, this prognosis was more difficult to absorb than the cancer. If it were true, I would never be able to fly to see my mother again, nor would I be able to swim, which had long been my way of replenishing.


I had that sick, pit-in-the-stomach feeling as I watched the surgeons sweeping by. My heart was pounding and I was inwardly shaking-I knew I was experiencing a stress response and that, in some cases, stress can inhibit the function of certain white blood cells-the very ones needed to shut down cancer cell proliferation.


And then the pre-op nurse summoned me to her office. I felt an immediate sense of connection with her as she asked my concerns. Only one of the oncologists I had met thus far had shown real empathy. I'd tried to understand this as a positive: the oncologists' primary concern wasn't me as a patient, but instead the specific mutation of non-small cell lung cancer that was eating away at my lung and the most appropriate chemotherapy for it. I respected this focus, but I missed the human connection.


The pre-op nurse, sitting in that quiet office outside the frenetic waiting room, was the first person to extend a lifeline I could actually grasp. When she asked about my concerns, I blurted out, "I really want my lung to reexpand." I was afraid she might say, "That will never happen." Instead, she said, with a conviction that went right through me, "Picture your lung reexpanding during the procedure."


Not only did she give me hope, she gave me a way to participate in my own treatment. I followed her advice, and at that terrifying moment when the catheter was inserted into my lung, I envisioned my lung coming back. Later, when I would drain my lung, I'd think of her words, picturing my lung reexpanding. Her faith that this could happen, and that I could help the process, continues to inspire me to this day.


From this nurse, I learned the true power of envisioning. I began to apply her words in other ways: I pictured the cancer flowing out of me; I pictured myself swimming again in the ocean, or getting on a plane again to visit my mother. Later, when I learned more about cancer, I pictured my NK cells and the chemotherapy surrounding my tumor with love and light.


When my lung fully reexpanded and the tube was removed, I knew this nurse had played a crucial part in bringing about this positive outcome. She'd believed with me, and her belief counterbalanced the negative prediction of the first oncologist.


By several months into my treatment, my relationship with that oncologist had almost fully come undone. After a particularly difficult encounter having to do with my request for the release of lung scan results so that I could determine if it would be safe for me to visit my mother by airplane, I went to the surgical day unit with the hope of seeing that pre-op nurse. I was certain I'd be turned down, but the receptionist said she'd find her. As I waited, I wondered if she would remember me.


She did, and that short encounter was one of my most healing at the hospital. She celebrated with me the great news that my lung had reexpanded, and she expressed unwavering faith in my ability to help myself. She also encouraged me to spend time meditating in the healing garden of the hospital, which I now do regularly. I felt flowing from her a sense of empathy that allows healing at its deepest level.


It has been over two years since I've seen this nurse, but her compassion is with me every day, helping me heal. She is as much a part of my treatment as my beloved new oncologist.


Some days, I wish she had clinic hours. But then, I hear her kind voice echoing in my mind, and I feel renewed. I am reminded each day that nurses change lives.