Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Cancer Nurse

Carol White '85 learns lessons about dignity and bravery from her patients every day.

Before Carol White became a nurse, she taught English at Marshall High School on Chicago's West Side. Her former life as an educator will come as no surprise to her colleagues at Loyola University Medical Center, where she has made education part of her mission. She teaches a course on cancer and chemotherapy for staff nurses, and took the lead in creating educational materials that help patients understand the cancer they are battling. Those are just a few of the reasons White was named the nation’s Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse of the Year for 2005. Here, in her own words, she talks about her indispensable work.

My job title is a conversation stopper. When I tell someone I’m a cancer nurse, one of two things happens. It either stops the conversation cold, or the person I’m talking to asks for a diagnosis.

But I do love talking about my work, because I love what I do. I’m an advanced practice nurse/clinical nurse specialist. That means I’ve done master’s-level preparation and I concentrate in a specialized area. My specialty is oncology. I deal mostly with patients who have been diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma, or multiple myeloma, the blood cancers.

I think every nurse has a specialty that pulls them, whether you’re a trauma nurse or a pediatric nurse or a cardiac nurse. There’s just something in that population that speaks to your heart. In oncology, the patients probably have given me much more over the years than I could ever give to them. They teach you lessons every day about bravery.

When I first started in oncology, I thought we saved everybody. I found out, sadly, that’s not the case. But you learn that there is always something you can do at any moment for the patient. It’s a matter of being open to the moment and to the need that the person has right then.

It’s their journey, and you have the privilege of being on it with them. You have to try and fulfill whatever their needs are at that moment. And when you do that, you fulfill something of your own, too. I have patients that still send me cards nine years after I cared for them. There are others that I saw for an hour, but I know that it made a difference for them.

I talk about the emotion of my job, but it’s also very challenging intellectually. Our function is to coordinate the care of our patients, to educate our nurses, to bring research to the bedside, so that we’re looked at as clinical experts as well. I make rounds every day with physicians. I help admit patients and get them out of the hospital. I collaborate with social workers as well as the home care nurses and staff nurses to bring the best care possible to patients after they’ve been hospitalized.

Two things I hear a lot from patients: They’re not afraid to die, but they don’t want to die in pain. When the standard treatments don’t work, it’s important that patients know that they have not been abandoned, that we will be with them until the end, and that we’re going to manage their pain so they have a peaceful, dignified death. Pain management is one of my passions. I serve on the committee at Loyola to maintain the standards that are in place for managing pain, and I was involved in introducing a pain resource nurse for each hospital unit at Loyola.

Education is another passion: providing education both for patients and for staff nurses. We teach a chemotherapy course for nurses, so they learn to give chemo and how to manage the side effects. And I’ve been involved in developing materials for patients that will help guide them through the process as they are diagnosed and have treatment. It’s a time of great anxiety for many patients. Communicating frankly and calmly about the experience helps people calm down so they can get to the hard facts they need.

Winning a national award came as a total surprise to me. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. I didn’t feel like I had done anything special, yet when I stood on that stage at the award ceremony and they read some of things I’d done, I thought, “Wow, did I really do all that?” Of course, you do things one at a time, and you never do them alone. I won that award because of all the people who helped me become the best nurse I could be.

There are certain times in your life that are turning points. For me, it was before I became a nurse, when I was in the maternity ward after suffering a miscarriage. There I was surrounded by babies, and of course I had to punish myself and go look at them, and when I got back to my room I started crying.

I didn’t think anyone had seen me until about ten minutes later, when this nurse came in my room. She took my hand and said, “You know, I saw you just now, and is there anything I can do to help?” That changed my life, because much later I found myself thinking about that, and I realized I wanted to be that person. I wanted to be there at that time in someone’s life when they need someone to help them get over it. I can look at that moment with that nurse and know that it showed me what I can do to make a difference.

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