Once, at chemo infusion during the time when everyone wore masks because of the flu outbreak, my nurse stopped abruptly, walking across the suite. When I had walked in that day, I slowly noticed that everyone was wearing masks. It didn't seem odd at first, but then I thought about what it meant that I didn't know to wear a mask, and I felt for a moment that I was in an apocalyptic zombie movie. There was some threat, worse than the usual threat in a cancer ward, and everyone else was protected against it but me. But I still didn't want to wear a mask. I hate those masks, the way they hold your breath in against your face and scratch at your ears. For me, they always make my glasses sit askew and slip around, and if I'm not careful about how I breathe, my breath fogs up my glasses. They make me feel like a doofus, an uncomfortable doofus who can't quite breathe. As it turns out, it was just a couple flu cases among patients and staff that led to the mask proliferation. No one wants to get the flu, least of all cancer patients, so this seemed reasonable. Still, it was hard to see with my breath fog constantly on my glasses lenses, and it's hard to communicate with only your eyes visible.
My nurse stopped, turned, and walked straight over to the nurses' station, where I suddenly noticed that three people were gathered. She gave a long and heartfelt hug to the older man standing there, seemingly holding her breath. I noticed other nurses and techs looking on quietly, and I wondered what was happening. I looked away, sensing that this was a private moment that deserved respect, and there's already such a shortage of privacy in the chemo pods anyway. I wanted to know what was going on, but I also didn't want to know at all, because I could tell it was something heartbreaking.
The hug ended and my nurse stepped back. The man started talking while my nurse wiped her eyes and sniffled. All I could hear was "This was her best year," and my heart sank. His wife had died. She had had pancreatic cancer. The man introduced the two younger people standing next to him, as his daughter and her boyfriend. The woman's eyes looked a bit puffy above her mask, and the man looked uncomfortable. My nurse nodded a lot and seemed to smile behind her mask, and the man mentioned something about visiting. Then the three people left and my nurse stepped behind the nurses' station, and everything quickly returned to normal.
Death doesn't happen that often in these chemo suites, but pancreatic cancer still has one of the lowest five-year survival rates at only 8%. I've often wondered what it's like for these nurses and techs to care for people who are so sick, and facing such rough odds. They see us come and go, weekly, monthly, and they monitor our progress with stats and intuition. They see in our lab results that our platelets or white blood cells are low, but they can see in our faces that we're depressingly fatigued, in our thin frames and pursed lips that we can't eat, in our wrinkled brows and tense shoulders that we're in pain. How much does this pain them? I heard on the radio recently that ICU nurses report the highest burnout rate of all health care professionals. I wonder where oncology nurses fall on that spectrum. I wonder, also, how much they think of us when they go home, or when we take an extra week off and they haven't seen us in a while. And when we die, how do they get over the fear that yet another patient will die? Do they miss our family and friends and wish they would visit after we're gone?