June 26, 2008

Growing Up and Older at Roswell Park

By Kathy Rogala

It's an unusual place to grow up and older, at a cancer hospital. But that's exactly what I have done with my life at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. Let me explain.

In 1981, as a bright-eyed 20-year-old, I started as a registered nurse at Roswell Park, working on the breast cancer floor. I was flush with optimism, energy and a sense of infallibility. The future was wide open.

Working the night shift for the next six years, I handed out pain pills, hung IV bags of chemotherapy drugs and cleaned up the aftermath of the treatments we administered in those days. This disease that I worked with on a daily basis was still something that happened to others and was not part of my reality that I lived with.

I believed I was a good nurse because I could administer all my medications on time, my charting was flawless and every dressing change was completed with perfection. When I turned 28, I took a position working with children who had cancer. That was the beginning of my growing up.

Within the first two weeks of working the pediatric oncology unit, we lost an 18-month-old boy to leukemia. I still remember the day he passed away. Several years later, I turned 30 and gave birth to a beautiful daughter named Carly. I continued to work at Roswell Park, but now in the outpatient chemotherapy clinic and as extra help on the pediatric unit. Working with children who have cancer is no easy task. It's heart-breaking.

My own maturing process would take a tremendous leap forward in the winter of 1992, when my own 3-year-daughter was diagnosed with leukemia. Words that once had "definitions" now had "meanings." Induction chemotherapy, consolidation chemotherapy, remission and relapse; words used so casually in a professional conversation became important milestones in Carly's treatment and in her life. I continued to work during Carly's treatments. By the spring of 1995, she had relapsed twice with her leukemia.

I was no longer the same nurse who walked into Roswell Park 15 years earlier; I was a better nurse. Gone was the perfect handwriting, the perfection in my technique and skills, the perfect makeup. To a certain extent, maybe nothing I did was flawless anymore. But what I was able to do with ease was sit, listen and understand the reality of the patients I cared for and the families who loved them.

I began to understand no one is excluded from catastrophic events in their lives. That is reality -- that each and every one of us will face life-altering challenges.

My daughter was fortunate enough to find an unrelated bone marrow match from the national registry in May 1995. Carly started kindergarten that September, and this month, graduated from Mount Saint Mary's Academy in Kenmore.

Carly will begin her adult life, flush with optimism, energy and with a tempered sense of infallibility. She learned early in life that everyone gets dealt a life-altering challenge at one time or another.

And me? I'm now in my 28th year as a Roswell Park nurse. My 50th birthday is coming up in a few years. I still hold very fond memories of that 20-year-old fresh-faced nurse that I was, but I wouldn't trade the experience, maturity, knowledge, confidence, tears and the smiles I've gained growing up and older at Roswell Park.

Originally published by Scherer.

(c) 2008 Buffalo News. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.