Jeff Whipple is in his 70s, but up until a few years ago he hadn’t been to the doctor since the eighth grade. Whipple is blessed with a hearty constitution, and cursed with a bad case of White Coat Syndrome — he really didn’t like to be around doctors.
However, last spring while getting a physical, his doctor urged him to get a colonoscopy, the very thought of which made Whipple’s skin crawl. So they struck a bargain, they would start by having Whipple take a Cologuard test.
If you’re a senior and you watch television, you’ve undoubtedly been bombarded by Cologuard commercials promoting the fact that the test can be done at home, and it is 92 percent effective. “Sure beats a colonoscopy,” Whipple thought. But he was shocked to learn that he tested positive for colorectal cancer, which meant he was about to embark on months of chemotherapy treatments at the Infusion Center at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital.
This had all happened so suddenly, and while no one would intentionally choose to get chemotherapy if they didn’t have to, there did indeed turn out to be a silver lining of sorts. Whipple wrote me a note a few weeks ago talking about the staff at the MVH Infusion Center and the treatment he had received.
“They are my go-to team of people for chemo, labs, and counsel,” Whipple wrote. “I can’t say enough about them, their positive spirit, friendliness, professionalism, and their ability to put the patient at ease.”
I spoke on the phone with Barbara Rush, the R.N. who runs the Infusion Center, who said, “I’ve worked at bigger infusion centers, and one of the things that makes us special is, we don’t have a bad apple in the bunch. Everyone here truly wants to work here and do what’s best for the patient.”
Rush explains that the Infusion Center tries to assign each patient a primary nurse who can be with them each time they come in, and that having that continuity helps the patient to be more comfortable. “Because the primary nurse spends so much time with the patient, we get to know them well and they get to know us well, so it becomes more of a friendly, family-type atmosphere. Nurses feel like they’re not just taking care of just another patient, it’s someone they know and care about.”
Jeff Whipple’s primary nurse is Shawn Austin, and he said that they’ve developed a rapport that is very comforting to him. “I’m affected by anxiety,” Whipple said, “and I used to take lorazepam to calm down before my treatments, but I don’t do that anymore. Now we just pick up where we left off, and we make the best of it.”
Austin has been at MVH for about a year and a half, and came here from Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She likes working in a smaller hospital because it gives her the opportunity to really get to know the patients.
“It’s a small staff, and it’s really nice to be part of the team,” she says. “The other great thing about our Infusion Center is that all the rooms are private, so that patients can have their own space.” This is in marked contrast to many big-city hospitals where you might find 10 or 20 patients in one room getting infusions, separated by a curtain around their bed.
Another patient at the MVH Infusion Center is Jennie Driesen, who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Driesen is an R.N. in physician services at MVH, and so got to experience the hospital both as a caregiver and as a patient. She was quick to point out the luxury of having a private room. “The rooms are so lovely,” Driesen said, “the chairs are so comfortable and lovely, each chair is reclinable, has a heating element and a massage element. Sometimes I’m in there for five hours at a time, and I can read, watch TV, or work on my computer. Or I can have a guest.”
Driesen explains that she tends to drive herself hard, and going in for chemo is like forced relaxation. “Believe it or not,” Driesen says, “I joke about how going in for my treatment is sort of like having a spa day.”
Driesen also likes the fact that there are always two people assigned to her, the primary nurse and a backup who double-checks on her. “I’ve worked in a lot of places,” Driesen says, “but this is the gold standard. I sit there in the chair and think these people are being so careful with me, it’s a great feeling, it’s very comforting, and it gives me confidence.”
Driesen wanted to point out that one of the infusion nurses, Sharon Spinney, set up birdfeeders and a birdbath outside the window. “Just sitting there and looking out the window can be mesmerizing,” Driesen said. “It’s so soothing.”
Driesen, like so many others familiar with the Infusion Center, wanted to single out the job done by Barbara Rush. “Barbara is a fantastic practitioner, she’s so knowledgeable and comforting,” Driesen said. “She’s also very realistic. You come to her with even the smallest problems, and she always seems to have an answer. We’re so lucky to have her.”
I sat in on a Zoom meeting for the Martha’s Vineyard Cancer Support Group recently, and the group all had nothing but praise for the Infusion Center, and Barbara Rush in particular.
“I realize how important the center is and how the infusion nursing staff are our Island’s unsung heroes for cancer patients, and need to be celebrated and applauded,” Sibel Suman, a member of the MVCSG, said.
Myra Stark, whose turn it was to lead the group, said, “Barbara Rush is an angel, and so knowledgeable and so cool and calm, and just gets things done.”
Sibel Suman said, “They have been an incredible support to me emotionally and physically during my three-year battle. It was like a long therapy session that I enjoyed, and it was fun to hang out with the ladies there. it was such a pleasurable experience for me, I would actually look forward to going.”
“They’re our advocates,” MVCSG member Gaston Vadasz said. “If I ever have to get off-Island, one call and they can set something up with SSA. They genuflect to the M.V. Infusion Center over at the SSA.”
As you enter the Infusion Center, there’s a sign sitting next to the reception desk with words that ring true for hundreds of Infusion Center patients. It reads, “In this clinic, no one fights alone.”
No one is ever totally prepared for coming down with cancer. It can often mean you’re about to go through one of the darkest periods of your life. But to have Barbara Rush and her team there to guide you through the process and care for you can be both life-affirming and lifesaving. And maybe, from time to time, even a little fun.