Secondary Logo

Share this article on:

Note to My Nurse

Harpham, Wendy S. MD

doi: 10.1097/01.COT.0000266141.00815.4d


Wendy S. Harpham, MD is an internist, cancer survivor, award-winning author, and mother of three. Her books include “Diagnosis: Cancer,” “After Cancer,” “When a Parent has Cancer,” (selected as the #1 Consumer Health Book of 2005 by American Journal of Nursing), and, most recently, “Happiness in a Storm.” She lectures to professional and lay audiences on a wide range of issues centering around “Healthy Survivorship,” including recovery and late effects after cancer, raising children when a parent has cancer, clinical trials, and finding happiness in hard times. More information about Dr. Harpham and her work is available at

Dear Brenda, Hi. This note may seem out of the blue, but I've had an “Aha” moment and feel compelled to let you know: I get it. I know why.

Years ago I realized how hard my illness must have been for you. It wasn't just that all I could offer you were tiny veins, no small challenge back in the days before ports made it easy to get blood from a stone.

You had orders to administer medications you knew would make me so sick. It must have been exhausting and discouraging. (I wonder, did you ever feel guilty?) It's probably good we didn't know that while I was being treated, a landmark drug was being approved by the FDA that would make such nausea and vomiting a thing of the past for most chemo patients.

You were a mom yourself when you were assigned to care for me. I can only imagine how upsetting it must have been for you to listen to me worry about my three little ones at home. Yet you didn't shy away. In fact, you seemed to be treating my kids along with me at the chemo-clinic when, while sliding in the IV needle or checking my vital signs, you routinely asked about them.

But I suspect your greatest challenge was the fact that I wasn't just a patient. I was a medical doctor. I was one of you. It just had to have been nerve-wracking to know I was watching your technique with a critical eye when you started my IV lines. Or to hear me outlining a pretty darned good differential diagnoses for my odynophagia while half-gorked from chemo.

And because I'd personally tended to other patients with similar prognoses who died, you couldn't draw on the pat explanations or words of comfort that worked so well with your non-medical patients. I knew too much. I'd seen too much.

Figure. B

Figure. B

The proper dosages of the best drugs would never have been enough. I'm not sure how, but somehow you knew what I—Wendy, mother, physician, cancer patient—needed at any moment. You responded by flip-flopping back and forth as we tangoed through my problems and decision-making, letting me choose whether you would lead or follow.

And it helped me beyond words to think I was your very special patient. One particular morning stands out in my memory. I was having my blood drawn when profoundly neutropenic and feeling really, really rotten. You strutted by the phlebotomy station with someone else's chart. Noticing me out of the corner of your eye, you sensed my distress. As if I were your only patient, you pulled up a chair and sat with me, catching the pieces as I fell apart after the phlebotomist filled her tubes.

Do you remember, Brenda, how we soon were laughing at the stupid smiley face on the Band-Aid covering my puncture site? You winked as I waved good-bye, my confidence rekindled and my self-respect intact.

Perhaps most striking of all, you listened when I shared my crazy idea of writing a pamphlet for patients. You didn't patronize me with feigned interest; you actively engaged the creative healer who was fighting to survive inside your cancer patient.

Every few weeks, as my lymphoma shrank and my manuscript grew, you took home a new draft to read. Did I really think you had nothing better to do with your time off? Your continued concern and feedback (along with my good doc's, as you well know), helped me endure each round of treatment, not to mention complete what turned out to be my first book.

Six months after you met me, my chemotherapy treatments ended. My cancer was in remission, and I was no longer your patient. You could easily have left my case behind. But you didn't.

Who would have guessed that 15 years after you last stuck a needle in my arm I'd still be seeing you? Even though you have not been my chemo nurse for any of my many recurrences, you've still made time to listen, hug, advise, or edit and thus to help me heal—become whole.

I'm a doctor. I should have known. It was not that I was a very special patient. No, it was you. Your work. Your calling. It's because you are an oncology nurse that you still keep your door and your heart open.

With hugs and hope, Wendy

Back to Top | Article Outline

AJN Awards to ONS Books

Four books published by the Oncology Nursing Society are among the winners of the American Journal of Nursing's 2006 Book of the Year Awards:

  • Clinical Manual for the Oncology Advanced Practice Nurse (second edition), edited by Dawn Camp-Sorrell, MSN, FNP, AOCN, and Rebecca A. Hawkins, MSN, ANP, AOCN, first place in the Advanced Practice Nursing Category.
  • Radiation Oncology Nurses Enhancing Excellence (RONEE), edited by Marilyn L. Haas, PhD, RN, CNS, ANP-C, first place in the Electronic Media Category.
  • An Evidence-Based Approach to the Treatment and Care of the Older Adult With Cancer, edited by Diane G. Cope and Anne M. Reb, second place in the Gerontologic Nursing Category.
  • Psychosocial Nursing Care Along the Cancer Continuum (second edition), edited by Rose Mary Carroll-Johnson, Linda M. Gorman, and Nancy Jo Bush, first place in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing Category.

AJN is published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins/Wolters Kluwer Health, which also publishes OT.

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
Home  Clinical Resource Center
Current Issue       Search OT
Archives Get OT Enews
Blogs Email us!