In ealy 1980, as a new nurse on a busy hematology unit, I was learning to care for very young people with terrible illnesses. Tara was only 23 and a mother of a 3 year old son. Her extended family consisted of her father, brother and an aunt. Tara had an aggressive form of acute leukemia that the physicians believed had been brewing for years. As an indigent patient, Tara could only receive treatments offered through the Medicaid system. There were no experimental drugs for her condition at that time. I became her primary nurse when she was first diagosed. It was my job to educate her regarding the type of illness she had, the treatments the doctors would order for her and the medications we would use to help alleviate side effects from the chemotherapy. Tara and I also discussed the nitty gritty aspects of cancer care and leukemia; could she resume an active sex life and if so when?What protection should she use with a weakned immune system? Could the doctors cure her? What about her long blond hair, her crowning glory? Every day at work, I would take care of Tara. When she was too weak from chemotherapy, I would bathe her. When her long blond hair started coming out in clumps, I cut it off for her. The first admission to try and stop the leukemia lasted weeks and at one point Tara had to enter isolation because her body was unable to fight infection. She longed to see her son. We nurses decided to put her son in a mask, gloves, and isolation gown and let him in her room for a few moments. Now, today, this might not be tolerated. But those were precious moments for all of use and especially for Tara.
She was our lovely flowerchild. Despite frequent admissions for infections, blood transfusions and ultimately, relapse, Tara would come on to the ward with love for each patient. She would bring her guitar, sit on their beds and serenade them. Her personal plight did not diminish a vivacious life and sweet spirit. On the third relapse, I sat on Tara’s bed and looked her in eye. “Tara, I don’t know how much longer your body can keep getting the chemo and fighting the cancer”. I made her cry. I told her she needed to start preparing to leave her son. She survived that admission and went home thin, weak, pale, and determined. A few weeks went by and it seemed like all to quickly that her name appeared again on the admission list. I knew what this meant. I checked Tara into her isolation room and then she sat me down on her bed and said, “Sue, I did what you told me to do; I made my Dad my son’s guardian and I told my son that soon I will be living with the angels”. I broke and to this day, I still cry, because I can still see her crystal clear eyes radiant with love for her son, her dad and for me. Sobbing and sorely lacking for words, I asked her “how could you say this, how did you do this”? And here is where Tara taught me the most important lesson we learn in life: she said “Sue, if you had to do this, you could; we can do anything that we really have to do”. Now after 25 years of being an oncology nurse, I see this lesson being taught time and again. I see individuals become stronger in spite of these diseases trying to make them weaker. I see people set aside the fear of CANCER, the big C-word, and find joy, peace, and awareness that may not have been possible without the cancer experience. Tara’s lesson comes to my mind often, I will always be grateful to her for her love, her courage, her honesty and for her being my best teacher.