Sitting in a trendy restaurant sipping a cocktail, I pick Marcona almonds from a small plate set between a blonde woman and myself. We are guests celebrating the birthday of a mutual friend. We grin self-consciously before introducing ourselves.
She asks, “What do you do for a living?”
Do all nurses dread this question at parties? Admitting I’m an oncology nurse is a buzz kill. The dread I anticipate appears in her eyes but not for the expected reason. She says her father is hospitalized in another city and “not doing well.” She can’t visit as often as she’d like.
She asks, “Do you like your patients? Is it hard taking care of them?”
I wonder, how much information can she tolerate? A few morsels or an entrée?
Cancer conjures images of wraiths drinking reconstituted chicken broth from Styrofoam cups or receiving nourishment through tubes. It would be untruthful to say this never happens, however, the social ambience of the clinic where I work surprises newcomers.
Instead of lounge chairs lining the walls of a single, cavernous space, our clinic has private rooms. Long-time patients have favorite ones. It’s not unusual to find Happy Birthday written in Sharpie on a piece of fax paper taped to the sliding glass door of a room of its “regular” occupant. Sometimes there’s birthday cake too. Cancer patients can eat birthday cake, like the rest of us. They eat “diet as tolerated.”
Patients with lengthy appointments are offered lunch, and some choose their infusion day based on the cafeteria’s soup du jour. Many choose to bring food from home, however.
Often, patients make their meals at the infusion clinic a special occasion by bringing utensils from home. I particularly admired a hand-thrown ceramic bowl brought by a special patient. Weekly, it was filled with something new: pillows of wonton, pea pods, and water chestnuts in broth, or brown rice with chicken. On rainy days, it cradled creamy macaroni and cheese, and an heirloom silver fork delivered each small bite to her awaiting mouth.
These meals are prepared with love. Families take pride in the accomplishment of feeding a loved one with cancer. The family table marches onto the foreign field of cancer proclaiming, “We will not surrender our loved one without a fight.”
Back in the restaurant, I see our hostess heading our way. The blonde woman has concerned eyes. There is only enough time to offer her with a small morsel of information.
I consider my answers to her questions, “Do you like your patients? Is working with cancer patients hard?”
“I love them,” I say. “Working with cancer patients is hard work but I can’t imagine a more rewarding job.” Her eyes relax. She takes a sip from her wine glass.
Like a fairy godmother, the birthday girl hugs me, kissing my cheek. Pouf! I am restored to a guest at her party, sipping a cocktail.
*This post was originally published on TheONC website.