My memory from last year has been shattered. Chemotherapy rotted my brain, causing a weird haze to cover about three months of my life. The memories I do remember, my brain tries to block. Yet there is one key thing that stands out in my mind: the nurses who cared for me as I battled for my life.
July 2, 2018. I was going to my first doctor’s appointment as an adult. After very boring questions and checkups, the doctor palpated my stomach and felt what she thought was a six-month-old fetus. After tests and four hours spent at the OBGYN clinic, it was determined that there was no living thing inside of me, but what was it?
On July 9, my completely normal, teenage summer became an uncontrollable nightmare that I couldn’t escape from. I was diagnosed with stage three dysgerminoma, a very rare form of ovarian cancer. Within a span of a week, I went from planning my college move-in to preparing for emergency surgery and chemotherapy for a nine-pound tumor.
No one battles alone, and as clichéd as that sounds, it became a motto I followed religiously. For months, I was not left alone in a room for a single second. Someone was always there, making sure I was fed, checking my vitals, asking if I was physically and mentally okay, and keeping me as distracted as I could be.
Battling cancer is never easy, but for an eighteen-year-old preparing for the rest of her life, it is soul-crushing. I felt helpless and often thought of quitting. How could I, of all people, get through this? Only with the help of some really badass nurses.
Regina Baldwin, an oncology RN at Wesley Long Hospital in Greensboro, North Carolina, was my Superwoman, and I can say without a doubt in my mind that she is a key reason why I won my fight. My first memory of Regina was my first week receiving in-patient chemotherapy. I have always had a major needle phobia, and one of my biggest fears going into treatments was all the needles I would be prodded with every day.
My doctor wanted me to receive Lovenox, a blood thinner injected into the stomach to prevent clotting, since I was lying in bed for week-long periods. The shots were oil-based, meaning they would burn and irritate the tissue surrounding the injection sight. Not only was the initial needle painful; the aftermath was at least an hour of pain and a bruise where the shot was given. So, my fight or flight instinct would immediately kick in. The first time Regina tried to give me the shot, my fist uncontrollably swung and made contact with her. After that, my dad held my arms down, and my mom, boyfriend, or brother would hold down my legs as I writhed on the small hospital bed and screamed for them to stop.
During the shot administrations, all I could hear were my own cries and the blood rushing through my ears. I could see everyone trying to tell me to breathe, but my mind took over my body and I was overcome with pure panic.
“Giving you shots was probably the most difficult part of all of your treatment for me,” Regina said in an interview. “You had a huge fear of needles, but in the hospital we really want our patients to have these Lovenox injections in order to prevent blood clots from developing and making their stay more complicated. You understood this, but each day, because they were a daily administration, fear would rise up and overtake you. It really got to the point of having to restrain you in order to give them.”
After two days of this routine, I lay in bed as my adrenaline levels began to drop. I stared blankly at the wall as the tears on my cheeks began to dry. I wanted to quit. I thought I can’t do this. I wrote in my daily journal: “Home. I want to go home. I want my dogs, my bed, my whole family watching whatever is on the television, dinner made by my mom; something light for my stomach, but so delicious. Two days and I already crave home, but home doesn’t have strong meds and hospital Superwoman Regina. I have to stay here, away from home.”
Regina saw my defeat and knew I couldn’t keep undergoing the shots every day. So, she advocated to find another way to prevent clotting. The next thing I knew, she came in with mechanical stockings that massaged my calves, which encouraged blood flow. I also had to get up every couple of hours and walk around the hospital floor to allow blood flow to my feet. My Superwoman saved the day.
The job of an oncology nurse is mentally and physically taxing. Patients on the floor need twenty four-hour care, and many have grim futures. Each day, nurses must administer chemotherapy to every sick patient, reading off the usual script: “What’s your name? Date of birth…? Shannon Huth, born January 12, 2000, receiving Cisplatin on October…”
“My days really vary at the hospital, but I typically have four to five patients each shift, and most of the time I am serving as the charge nurse,” explained Regina when I asked what her daily job looks like. “Our unit is oncology, so we give some inpatient chemotherapy treatments, but we do a lot of symptom management for cancer patients as well as end-of-life care.”
They look at patients, lying helplessly in beds, as they are pumped with poison for hours at a time. They check their vitals to make sure their bodies are remaining stable and take on the emergencies when they start to shut down. They help patients out of bed and walk them to the bathroom, where they stay and make sure the simple task doesn’t end in disaster. They work tirelessly, always entering your room with a smile on their face.
I talked to Regina about the emotional effect their job can have. “I’ve had the privilege,” she said, “of seeing people in various parts of their cancer journey, from diagnosis to cure, and sometimes even death. Once you really get to know your patients, that’s where the challenge lies. You form everlasting relationships, and when someone isn’t able to survive their cancer, it can be very emotionally taxing on the nurses as well.”
I remember going through my hourly walks and peering into other patients' rooms. Most were older and rarely awake when I passed by. Their rooms were usually empty; they’d been left alone to battle their monster. I was always the only young patient on the floor, and my room was always filled. I watched as I slowly shuffled by, thankful for an easy fight.
The emotional connection between a nurse and a long-time patient can keep even the sickest of people waking up, ready to take on a hard day. Every evening at around 7:00 p.m., the day and night nurses would switch shifts, creating an enjoyable game of “which kind face do I have for the next twelve hours?” One late night in the hospital, I was standing in the mirror looking at my thinning hair. Reaching up, I took a clump and it fell out of my head like a handful of ripe blueberries. It was time. My dad brought our clippers into the hospital room and set me up in a chair as if we were in a barber shop. Closing my eyes, I listened to the quiet buzz as the blade glided over my scalp. Once the process was over, I slowly stood up and made my way back to the mirror. I stared at my bald, clean head with tears welling up in my eyes. My hair was gone, and I no longer recognized myself.
After almost ten minutes of observing, crying, and accepting, I made my way back to my small, boxy bed. At first, I sat there feeling defeated as my family poured compliments all over me.
“Your head is perfectly round!”
“It really brings out your eyes!”
“You look beautiful!”
Then my night nurse came in and gasped at the barber shop scene and my brand new style. “Why didn’t you tell me tonight was the night? I wanted to make it into a party!” She then brought every nurse on the floor to show them how beautiful I was. They laughed with me, complimented me, and made the impossible happen; they made me smile.
As I was reaching the end of my journey, I went around to every nurse, exclaiming how it was my last week on the inpatient oncology floor. I counted the days as my final night drew near. Five, four, three, two…
It was finally the night, and I had one of my regular night nurses, Jayden. Even my weak, ill body mustered the energy as I rambled on about how excited I was to be free. Three months had felt like three years, and I was ready to take the next step towards normality. Jayden gave me medications to calm the nerves, and I drifted off. I didn’t dream anything; I never did during those months. I was half-woken up by Jayden coming in to take nightly vitals, not enough, though, to hear him bring in a morning surprise.
My eyes fluttered open and I saw an array of gifts on my bedside table. A massive balloon, a stuffed kitten, snacks, and a card signed by all the nurses lay scattered on my table. “CONGRATS!” read the colorful ball floating above my head. An overflow of emotions enveloped my body: joy, excitement, love, and, surprisingly, sadness. I was sad to leave my nurses. For months, they had become my family, and I felt myself not wanting to leave them.
After my second surgery, I had one remaining week of outpatient chemotherapy before I could officially ring the bell signifying my freedom. Even after the long week in outpatient, I created close relationships with the nurses on the floor.
The day came. My final day. My second chance at life was finally here. I messaged Regina, “Starting hydration! It begins!” Throughout the day, I kept her updated with my progress. Four more hours… now three… now two…. So close!
As the final minutes were ticking down, around the corner I saw a small, smiling woman holding a balloon and flowers: it was Regina. She’d driven to the hospital to see me ring the bell. The realization of what was about to happen hit, and my eyes flooded with tears: I’m about to go home.
No one battles alone. My memory of those months has faded dramatically, but the one thing I remember is all the phenomenal nurses running the hospital. Whenever you think about someone beating cancer, you tend to think about how strong the person must be, how they overcame such a huge obstacle on their own. As someone who lived it, I never once thought I was strong or brave. Every day, I broke down crying, wanted to quit, and lay in a depressive ball. My family did a lot during those days, picking me up when they could, but it was the nurses who carried us all. They lent a helping hand when my parents were too tired; they brought laughter and joy when all seemed dark; and they always came in with smiling faces, even during their hardest days.
“My most prominent memory of you was the very first day I met and admitted you as my patient,” Regina recalled. “I was able to see how timid you were and what I think was a little bit of fear, which is to be expected. As time passed, you were a true rockstar and took it all in stride. I also loved all of the family and friends that rallied around you during this challenging time, which really spoke to the kind of person you are.”
We all gathered around as I took the small metal mallet and lightly tapped it onto the bronze bell. As the sweet sound of the bell rang around me, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who had made this moment possible. They are the real superheroes; they saved my life.