Oncology Nurses Need a ‘Creative Outlet’


Ellen Miller, MSN, FNP-BC, an oncology nurse practitioner, explains how she uses wreath-making to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

It is important for health care professionals, nurses especially, to find creative outlets, explains Ellen “Ellie” Miller, MSN, FNP-BC.

“We need that right side of our brain to be activated,” she said. “Most of the nurses that I know do need that creative outlet.”

Miller is a nurse practitioner specializing in radiation oncology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She conducts outpatient follow-up appointments for patients who have completed their radiation. Although she primarily sees patients with lung, prostate, and breast cancers, she meets with patients with all oncologic malignancies.

In an interview with Oncology Nursing News, Miller discussed what drew her to work in oncology, and how her floral wreath-making hobby has helped her better express herself and remain present while at home.

Oncology Nursing News: What drew you to oncology?

Miller: This is my first nurse practitioner role. I had spent my whole nursing career in the emergency room and intensive care unit, [but I] did a clinical rotation here at Vanderbilt at one of our breast centers, and worked with one of my good friends who is a surgical oncology nurse practitioner. The world of oncology just got its hooks in me. I sought out jobs in oncology after that. I just said, “Wow, this is a special place to be.”

Can you speak to the importance of maintaining that work-life balance?

I have worked certain jobs where it was harder to have work-life balance. The department I am in now is very supportive of [me]. I have a young son and husband, and I don't want to give them my leftovers. I want to go home and be with them, and spend my attention and focus there. But when I am at work, I am at work.

Burden is a hard word—but it is a burden sometimes to carry other people's healthcare. Some of the conversations—especially in the oncology world—that you have are heavy. Expressing to patients that “hey, your cancer is back,” is hard, whether you have a yearlong relationship with a patient or whether you just met them.

It is important to differentiate work and try not to take it home, but gosh, we are human. I think most of us in healthcare have love for people and so we do [end up] taking some of it home. Having a creative outlet is a really good way to recharge and refocus and have a place to put some of those feelings and emotions.

Segueing into that creative outlet, can you tell us a bit about your hobby?

I started making wreaths and little flower arrangements. I actually started doing it with my mom when I was a nurse in the ER. I just needed to be creative, and we had so much fun doing it. Then I started to sell them locally at a store in my hometown. Now, with my son, it's a lot harder now to turn out a product on a deadline. So, I still do it for fun, and I will make things for friends or family. It is more of a hobby now, but that first season I was making some money.

What goes into making a wreath?

The floral arrangements that I make for a vase or to go in somebody's entryway are not as difficult, because you are sticking the flowers through Styrofoam to hold them in the polling into place. But if it's a 360-degree design, that is a little more challenging, because you're trying to make it look good all the way around.

These wreaths will take hours. You can think you have something in mind and the [correct] color palette, but when you put them together, it's not right. Or you may find there you need a little more pop.

We would arrange very rough drafts and then hot glue each individual flower or weave it through some of that grapevine wreathes. I am a spiritual person. A lot of times I turn on my praise and worship music and sit there and just work on them. Sometimes, I get frustrated and go downstairs and do something else [before] coming back to it. And then it clicks. It works.

How does it feel to give someone a wreath as a gift?

When you give somebody a gift like that and they put it up on their door every season and love it and take pictures of it—when you create something that somebody can use forever, it is such an honor. I spend a lot of time praying over them and making sure that when people walk into their door that this is a welcome greeting.

Are there any that really stick out to you? Any favorites that you made?

My brother passed, and most of us have something—an animal or a butterfly—that reminds us of certain loved ones. Hummingbirds are those remembrances of him for my family. My mom and I made a wreath with tons of hummingbirds on it. It is a beautiful summer wreath, with all these hummingbirds on it, and it just makes that memory of him come alive again.

Why are nurses drawn to creative outlets?

I had a patient, and she was a quilter. I was curious and interested about quilting. I think it is kind of a dying art. A lot of young people don't know how to quilt.

Long story short, it is safe to say I do not think I am going to be a professional quilter; I don't have the patience for it, but I ended up making a quilt with her. She taught me how to do it. She came and spent a lot of time with me. [Us nurses] can have incredible relationships with our patients; she came to me and taught me how to quilt. But anyway, she was [also] a nurse, an ER nurse. She said that she used to work in a quilt store part time just to make a little extra money, and the majority of the customers that came in were nurses.

It was funny to hear that most of her customers were nurses because we do need this right side of our brain to be activated. Most of the nurses that I know do something creative or [use some] outlet. It is really true that we need that creative outlet for our mental health.

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