For cancer caregivers, the job can be heart-wrenching, but also rewarding
Pamela Merriam loves her job – but she has lost count of the number of times she has been asked how she possibly could.
“Most of the people scrunch their eyes up when I tell them what I do, or they just say, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ and then there’s this awkward silence,” she says.
Merriam, an advanced practice nurse for the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center’s Pain Management Service, says that because she deals primarily with cancer patients, “I have to explain myself on a regular basis to people who think it must be so depressing because often patients die.
“They ask, ‘Isn’t that hard? How do you do it?’ But the fact is, my job is very rewarding,” she says.
Merriam, is one of dozens of nurses, social workers, volunteers and others at the USC/Norris who find inspiration and personal gratification in working in a field that many outsiders consider too emotionally draining to even contemplate, let alone join.
But Merriam, whose job includes teaching patients about their illnesses and treatments, says her patients also give her valuable lessons as well. “I learn and grow from working with them. They’re always teaching me about life. They have a commitment to fighting their disease and they don’t play games,” she says.
Merriam says her work keeps her grounded and focused on the quality moments in life, adding: “I’m not super-human. I have my bad days too, but when I see what my patients are going through, it provides me with an appreciation of what I have.” One of the best parts of her job, Merriam says, is teaching patients about their treatment so they take an active role in battling their disease.
“I love to teach adults who are interested in learning and want to make an informed decision that will affect their quality of life. Many times you can’t promise them quantity, but you can help them achieve quality,” she says.
She says that simply spending time with patients, showing that she cares about them, brings rewards beyond description – even when the patient is beyond medical help.
“Some patients are fairly alone, so your presence, or a soft touch, is often what is meaningful. I’ve had patients die in my arms and it is a gift when they say, ‘Thank you, you’ve made a difference. Thanks for holding my hand,'” Merriam says.
At the end of the day, Merriam says, knowing that “I touched their lives and they’ve touched mine is what nursing is all about. That is what makes nursing special.” Clinical social worker Jane Ruiterman, agrees that the work can be emotionally challenging, but she adds, “It is worth it. There is a lot of satisfaction in knowing I’ve helped somebody.”
Her job includes helping patients and their families deal with the psychological and emotional aspects of cancer and also guiding them through the minefield of medical and financial challenges the illness can bring.
“I help with many aspects of how cancer can affect a person’s life – from transportation, to how to pay bills, how to talk to your children about cancer or how to put your life in order if you’re going to die,” she says.
“I’d be lying if I said it was easy or fun. Sometimes you cry and you leave work and hope you don’t take the sadness home with you. But there are times when a family lets me help them deal with death and dying and there’s a connection there, something spiritual and hard to describe. You do leave work drained, but there is that point at which you know you’re helping the patient and family through,” Ruiterman says.
“Even though you may only know a patient or a family for a short time, they become like a friend. As social workers, we keep professional boundaries, but we’re still human. I promised myself that if I ever became cold and callused, I’d walk away from the job. If I can’t shed a tear and show them that I care about them, I can’t do my job,” she says.
Jackie Feinstein began volunteering a year ago because her husband and daughter work at the USC/Norris and give it high marks for job satisfaction. Feinstein says she did not originally volunteer to work with cancer patients.
“I wanted to do something hands-on – not raising money or going to lunches. I started out sorting X-ray films, but that wasn’t for me. So I began working with the patients and it has been simply wonderful,” she says.
In retrospect, she says the death of her mother from cancer paved the way for her present work.
“I was with my mother when she died a few years ago. She was in her 90s and it happened very quickly. She died very gracefully. It seems now that was a kind of benediction from her to me,” providing a way to connect emotionally with others dealing with cancer, says Feinstein.
“The part of the job I love is interacting with patients and their families, and also the staff. The Norris is a great hospital with a great staff – and certainly the patients think so.”
Now, Feinstein spends a few hours each Tuesday and Thursday bringing food to patients and chatting with them and their families.
“They’re all so appreciative and it’s nice to feel appreciated – so I guess I love the job for selfish reasons,” she says with a laugh. “But I don’t find it depressing at all. It’s uplifting and I’ve made a lot of good friends.”