28 years later, memories of nurses strong as ever

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Twenty-eight years ago today (January 2, 1991), I sat in a hospital bed and watched “Hoosiers.” Mom had gone home to be with my brothers John and Jim, as Dad was still driving back east after making it several hundred miles west before he got the news and turned around.

cropped-runningwithghost_fc_f2-11.jpgAbout six hours earlier in the day, I had been admitted to Wooster Community Hospital, to Room 404, so doctors could run tests. I had heard the word leukemia mentioned, but I didn’t know what that was and I didn’t think it was any worse than a cold or the flu. At 3:30 p.m., I ate Little Caesars pizza and drank a Coke. I talked on the phone with my friend Jim Pagniano and told him I was in the hospital, but that I expected I would still play in the basketball tournament on the weekend.

But now that I was alone, and watching “Hoosiers,” I started getting nervous. I had spent a night in this hospital before — just about a month-and-a-half ago — when I had a surgery to repair a hernia, but this just seemed different. Dr. Frank Cebul III and a new doctor I had never seen before, Dr. Jeffrey Spiess, talked about bone marrow tests and leukemic blasts and even chemotherapy. He said the next day’s tests would tell them more.

“We’ll know then where we go from here,” I imagine Dr. Spiess said.

I didn’t understand that at all, at least not right then. I felt fine as I chowed on pizza. I didn’t feel like someone who should be sitting in a hospital bed.

But I also knew that I had been very tired over the last couple weeks. And I had this sharp pain in my back anytime someone touched me. And now, as I watched the boys from a small town in Indiana play basketball, a sport I loved to play, and did so on a team at a school that wasn’t much bigger than Hickory, I started to wonder what was happening to me.

A nurse came into my room and sat down. She asked me how I was feeling and I mumbled that I was fine. Earlier, before Mom left, the nurse told us that if we had any questions about any of the upcoming tests, we just had to ask. Now that Mom was gone, I didn’t have any questions. I had nothing but a creeping loneliness and a feeling that my life was changing and I didn’t have any idea how or why.

Tears started rolling down my face, but I didn’t say anything and neither did the nurse. But she was there, sitting quietly, and that meant everything to me.

The next three years of my life would be dominated by caring and compassionate nurses like the one in Wooster. The nurses at Akron Children’s Hospital helped me through the 10 weeks that I lived on 4-North, and then the two-plus years as an outpatient.

Matt and Joan Camp CHOPS photo

This is me, in June 1991, with Joan, at Camp CHOPS.

There was Theresa and Joan who acted crazy, who loved to laugh and do things in an attempt to make me laugh, to make me forget for just one second the battle that was taking place inside by body.

Rickey Henderson rookie photo

The card John gave me back in January 1991.

There was John, the only male nurse I had in my days as an in-patient, who brought in his baseball card collection one day so I could look at it, and after I had turned through pages of baseball cards worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, he asked me what card I liked best. I told him I liked the Rickey Henderson rookie card best because I was collecting Henderson cards, and the rookie – valued at the time at close to $400 – was one I coveted but could never afford. He slid the card out and handed it to me.

“It’s yours,” he said.

There was Janet, who knew I needed to eat, and who knew I couldn’t stomach hospital food, but that I loved sausage biscuits from McDonalds, and so she would stop there on her way to the hospital in the mornings and buy one for me, dropping it off in my room before her shift started.

Matt and Pam photo

Pam and I stand at the Akron Marathon Expo in September 2017.

And in the outpatient clinic, there was Pam and Char, who guided me through life as a kid whose cancer was in remission, a kid who was trying to get back to a normal that didn’t exist anymore.

The nurses are one of the reasons I can look back on what by all accounts should be a tragic and sad anniversary – the day I found out I had cancer as a 15-year-old – and be thankful for my experience.

The nurses changed my life every bit as much as the cancer did.



The Author

Matt Tullis is the author of Running With Ghosts: A Memoir of Surviving Childhood Cancer. He is the director of Digital Journalism at Fairfield University, and is the host and producer of Gangrey: The Podcast.

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