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A pillar of strength

An RN's colleague shines after cancer diagnosis

Wednesday May 14, 2014
Gail Probst, RN
Gail Probst, RN
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Over the years I have counseled and cared for many people with a diagnosis of cancer. Every once in a while, you meet a patient who will teach you and touch you forever.

In this case I was educating, guiding and supporting a colleague I had known for more than 30 years. After experiencing severe headaches with auras of flashing lights, Mary was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme. After her first craniotomy, she asked me to visit her and had many questions about her diagnosis and treatment.

Based on my experience, patients react in different ways when faced with a serious diagnosis such as this. Mary cried a little and then, with the greatest of determination and hope, declared she would win the fight against her disease. She returned to work about three weeks after her surgery.

Mary and I would talk about treatments on almost a daily basis. We developed a regimen of anti-nausea medications and created a treatment plan that allowed her to continue to work at the hospital. She rarely missed a day of work during six weeks of radiation. She shared her diagnosis, and her determination, with everyone who asked.

Mary was aware of a vaccine clinical trial for patients who experience recurrence of her cancer, which had returned in less than a year, and hoped she would be a candidate for the vaccine trial. She was not deterred by having to go to the U.K. for the vaccine, and the hospital staff raised more than $10,000 for her expenses. Unfortunately, Mary turned out to not be a candidate for this trial. She returned all the funds and presented a thank-you note to the staff, in which she wrote, “Any benefit time or money you pledged will be returned to you, but I am keeping the hugs, kind words and prayers!”

After the recurrence, Mary had a second craniotomy and returned to work. Having earned her informatics certification, she worked in every hospital department teaching staff how to use the new electronic medical records system, troubleshooting charting problems and assisting in developing a better approach to using the EMR.

During this time, Mary began a new chemotherapy protocol. She planned a trip to Hawaii with her family and was delighted at news that she was soon to become a grandmother. She planned the shower and never let the fact that she had a life-altering illness deter her. At the same time, she was not in denial and understood what lay ahead.

Immediately before the trip to Hawaii, her headaches returned and her peripheral vision was affected. Again the tumor had returned. She sought several surgical and medical opinions and ultimately decided to undergo a third craniotomy. She chose to go to Hawaii first, determined not to spoil her family’s trip.

Five days after their return, Mary underwent her third brain surgery. The surgery went well and the tumor was removed, but there were complications. Mary died six weeks later with her whole family beside her.

Many patients initially are unable to share their stories or reach for support or find comfort in their colleagues after a cancer diagnosis. Mary was different. She found comfort in sharing the good and bad with those around her. She had a special way of enabling her co-workers and caregivers to feel encouraged and ready to support her in any way they could. Mary rarely cried but when she did, we understood and cried with her.

Every time Mary came to my office, I was glad to see her. I would learn from her, help her and we would comfort each other. We would learn from her and admire her grace and quiet dignity in the face of adversity. I and many of her other colleagues forever will be grateful for what she has taught us about living, working and ultimately dying from cancer.

We will remember how Mary taught us to live life, accept support and help and to always be a good friend. These are lifelong lessons.


Gail Probst, RN, MS, ANP, AOCN, NE-BC, is director of cancer services at Huntington Hospital, part of the North Shore-LIJ Health System on Long Island. Post a comment below or email editor@nurse.com.