1. Adams, Barbara MSN, RN, CPHON


The smallest gesture has the capacity to create expansive love.


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It was Easter morning on the adult oncology floor and my 26-year-old patient Kevin was pleading with me to allow him to decorate the drab unit with colorful plastic eggs.

Figure. Illustration... - Click to enlarge in new window Illustration by Jennifer Rodgers

"The place needs a little cheer," he said, smiling.


The enthusiasm in his voice was unmistakable in the somber hum of the institutional environment. Kevin had been diagnosed with a difficult to treat hulk of a cancer called a desmoplastic sarcoma several months ago. He had been getting weeklong, high-dose chemotherapy treatments for the past several months. I had become one of his main nurses over the course of his treatment. Today was the beginning of a new weeklong cycle.


I watched as he scribbled words on small scraps of paper, then stuffed them into the eggs.


"Don't worry, the messages are little sayings, nothing lewd or insulting," he promised.


In the excitement of preparing the colorful vessels, he hadn't even noticed me starting his infusion pump. I watched as the red doxorubicin rhythmically dripped into the clear chamber. "The red devil," as it is called, would produce a tempest of cytotoxic changes inside not only his cancer cells but also his healthy cells over the next week, making him vulnerable to a host of life-threatening complications, including bloodstream infections and heart damage. But today was the first day and he was feeling well.


"Well, it's the weekend and management isn't around, so go for it. Just don't go into other patients' rooms[horizontal ellipsis] you know, infection control and all that."


He rubbed his hands together briskly, then placed the colorful eggs into a large shopping bag for distribution.


Moments later, I watched as he rolled his iv unit down the hallway, hospital gown trailing behind, holding the metal pole like a king with his staff as he placed the holiday treasures on safety railings, on countertops, in corners.


By trade he was a firefighter, and I wondered if working close to death he had somehow accepted and internalized it as a daily possibility. Now, on this holiday, he was determined to find some joy for himself and others in a challenging situation.


Another patient on the ward, 77-year-old Eunice, was slowly walking around the circular unit. Frail and fatigued, she bunched her lips together and leaned heavily on her gray-haired husband. Earlier in the day, she had confided that she wasn't sure if all the debilitating treatments were worth it, but "kept on 'keeping on'" for her husband and children.


Noticing a purple egg on the railing, she hesitated. She seemed unsure what it was about.


Kevin waved his hand warmly at her. "Go ahead, open it, it's for you. Happy Easter."


She opened the egg and unfolded the paper inside.


"You are loved and you are valuable," she read out loud to her husband, her eyes growing glassy with tears.


"Thank you!" she called to Kevin.


"Happy Easter. Tell everyone we're having an Easter egg hunt out here."


Throughout the day, patients came out of their rooms and discovered Kevin's eggs. They intermingled. There was laughter, sweetness, and an interchange of cancer stories in the once somber hallways.


Kevin refused to make cancer the meaning of his days. Instead, he found an opportunity to create a story bigger than himself. He showed me that the smallest gesture has the possibility to create expansive love. His kindness reminded many of the patients that they hadn't lost value and worth, no matter how humbled they had been by cancer.


The following year, I was on shift again on Easter Sunday when I found out Kevin had died at home a month earlier, surrounded by his family and fellow firefighters. Looking out at the empty hallways, I couldn't help thinking of him.


"Let's have an Easter egg hunt on the unit," I suddenly said to a fellow nurse.


"A what?" she questioned.


I told her Kevin's story.


The rest of the day, as I watched patients, their family members, and friends open and read the anonymous notes inside the Easter eggs, I thought of Kevin. I was sad the world would never get the opportunity to know him. He showed me how to open my heart, how to bring kindness to the spaces of vulnerability and fragility.