I wish u knew… Caring for people with advanced lung cancer

Tim Hampshire

Something that always strikes me about nurses is how they answer the questions I ask them—matter-of-factly, like they’re trying to make it impossible for me to misconstrue what they’ve said. It probably has something to do with how deeply involved they are with their professions on a personal level. I’m generalizing, but they tend to express themselves like they don’t want to let too much of the truth fly away by speaking it. It is caged up inside each one of them. They proceed with some discomfort. Nursing isn’t something that most people can leave in the clinic; it follows the practitioner through his or her life.

This is what I was thinking about as I walked into my interview with Vicki Sherry. As a certified nurse practitioner, oncology specialist, and teacher at the graduate level, she knows and does a lot. But I wanted to know something about her that I couldn’t find online or learn by asking anyone who works with her: how has her profession shaped her?

She had plenty to say, and didn’t need much time to say any of it.

Ms. Sherry discusses how the experience of caring for patients with advanced lung cancer has changed her life.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that her family and friends often use her as a first responder. “My kid burnt his finger; what do I do?” is something she has to answer a little too often by telephone, and pro bono. She said that people know her specialty is clinical oncology, but to the public, a nurse is a nurse; they can all do it all. It doesn’t seem to bother her too much because she does indeed have a broad knowledge base. So at the quotidian level, she has to deal with the pressure of being “the one who will know what to do.” That’s a significant burden.

Another common conception about her, applying mostly because of her specialization, is the one that leads people to ask, “How do you do this? Doesn’t it burn you out?”

This one did surprise me:

“In fact,” she refutes, “this profession has made me stronger as a person. I definitely don’t feel the burn out at all.” She prefaced with “in fact,” and finished without frills. Everything within “fact” stays within the realm of fact. I pictured her churning out a brutal 12-hour shift, changing meds, changing beds, directing subordinates.

“I don’t sweat the small stuff,” she said. “Because of my patients, you can’t sweat the small stuff.” She reminded me of Rose of Sharon from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath when she feeds a starving stranger. “You got to,” is her entire explanation. You got to not sweat the small stuff. You got to.

The interview was short. With every response, I got the pith and the pulp in one shot. How did she get into oncology? Easy: did one rotation as a student and was moved by seeing a bone marrow transplant. What does she look forward to in the next few years as a nurse? Easy: “I can’t wait for the day when we have a cure…that will be the greatest day.” The greatest day never seemed closer.

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