Five Life Lessons My Oncology Patients Taught Me

June 15, 2018
Debi Fischer, MSW, BSN, BA, LCSW, RN
Debi Fischer, MSW, BSN, BA, LCSW, RN

Debi Fischer is a nurse at the University of Miami surgical oncology step down unit. Prior to that she worked in orthopedics and neurology for many years. In addition to her nursing experience, she has earned a master’s degree in social work. Becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker was a lon-sought-after goal which she finally attained. She is a caregiver for her family and her dogs as well.

Working in oncology as a registered nurse, you can learn all kinds of things, from tonight's TV lineup to the importance of letting go of the small stuff.

Working in oncology as a registered nurse (RN) can forever change your life. This is not meant to sound corny or like it was lifted out of a soap opera or novela, as we call them in Miami. If anything, it makes one realize the strength and resilience of the human spirit when faced with adversity.

Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from my patients.

  • Patients can be experts on their post-op surgical care. I am eternally grateful to my patients who walk me through what the other nurse has done, such as a specific dressing change technique or emptying a drain. I was surprised to learn that despite not having a medical background in many cases, patients know exactly how their tubes should be flushed or drained. Everyone’s surgery and case is different, and I always listen and learn.
  • Be considerate of the caregivers. In our hustle and bustle to make sure all the computer orders are acknowledged and IVs hung, and between talking to myriad departments for the oncology patient, we can sometimes overlook the fact that there is very likely another person present in the room, a family member or close friend. Don’t forget that they are this patient’s source of emotional strength. I try to always ask them if they need anything, since they can sometimes get lost in the quest to make the patient more comfortable. They need a blanket, a sandwich and pillows too, especially at night when the rooms are freezing. Don’t forget a cup of hot tea in case they come down with a cold, since their immune system may be stressed out too. Rooming in with an oncology patient and waiting on them can wreak havoc with a healthy patient’s immune system too.
  • Tonight’s TV lineup. For patients with cancer who spend a lot of time in the hospital, TV is often their lifeline to what’s happening in the outside world. Finding a station for them, and making sure the remote works is very important, sometimes number two, right after their pain medication. Nowadays, patients have multiple devices, such as tablets and laptops. Find out how to get them hooked up to your facility’s Wi-Fi. I finally got to watch “Scandal” with the unlikeliest of patients. I had to keep going back to their room and when I did, I got hooked on the show.
  • Take nothing for granted. You wake up, go to the bathroom, make some coffee, check your cell, take out your animals. But what if you were unable to do that any longer? What if you were bed ridden due to excruciating pain or unable to get out of bed alone due to muscle wasting? It would all be a different story. My oncology patients ring the call bell and wait for the certified nursing assistant or RN to give them the bedpan or get them out of bed to walk to the bathroom if possible. You might check your phone while waiting, but that would not be a priority any longer. Forget about the animals. You might have a service dog.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. Every little thing bothers you, from traffic gridlocks to someone forgetting to buy toothpaste at home. But what if you had to worry about more pressing matters, like, increasing the dosage of pain meds to function? Those little annoyances would slip by the wayside. Everything would be in perspective by that point. The small stuff would cease to bother us. It’s funny how many of my oncology patients who return every few months battling common problems from PEG tube malfunctions to neutropenic fevers all are concerned with the bigger picture, like when am I getting out of here? A I getting my chemo on schedule? And more importantly, how much time do I have left on this earth?