“Sometimes, a hug is the best medicine. Sometimes, what a patient really needs from us is our support.”
Smiles. Life. Laughter. Family. These are words oncology nurse Emily Hernandez, RN, says often, but never lightly. She means them. For Hernandez, words like these come from the heart. When she says them, she smiles.
“We keep it very humorous and light in here,” says Hernandez. “We laugh a lot because this work isn’t about dying; it’s about living.”
The work Hernandez references is overseeing the delivery of chemotherapy to men and women from all walks of life who have come together with one thing in common – a desire to overcome cancer. To some, the work would seem heavy, even overwhelming at times. But, as Hernandez observes, the people who do the work are a different breed.
“Yes, we do get attached to our patients over time, and it is hard when someone loses the battle,” Hernandez says. “But this is something we do from a place of love and empathy. The patients become like family, and we’re always trying to imagine what they’d need if they were our family members. To work here, you have to appreciate how special that connection is.”
Fostering close connections with patients battling cancer comes from experience for Hernandez. Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006, her mother fought bravely and cheerfully for seven years before eventually choosing to discontinue treatment and enter hospice care. Being with her mother during the experience and watching her care team, Hernandez says, inspired her to become a nurse and to specialize in oncology.
“She remained positive; her faith carried her,” recalls Hernandez. “She really had a huge impact on my life and how I approach my work.”
Perhaps it was the experience with her mother that taught Hernandez a valuable lesson about cancer care – some of the most helpful therapies are available without a prescription.
“Sometimes, a hug is the best medicine. Sometimes, what a patient really needs from us is our support,” she offers.
Meet Butch Oberhoff. He knows how much a simple gesture of care can mean. While he had spent most of his adult life working in the healthcare field, he says he had not fully appreciated the patient’s perspective until his doctor spoke three fateful words – “You have cancer.”
“You wonder if you’ve been given a death sentence. You know it’s going to be a difficult process, and you’ll be handing control of your life to someone else,” Oberhoff remembers. His fears subsided when he met his oncology nurse, Emily Hernandez.
“On my first day, she pulled up a seat next to me, and we had a conversation. Face to face, eye to eye,” Oberhoff recalls fondly. “She went out of her way to make sure I knew I wasn’t alone. She cared, and she let me know she cared, every single week. In fact, she made sure I knew how much she cared. She was there for every treatment and made me feel like it was her mission to get me through this.”
With a broad smile, Hernandez reflects on her time with Oberhoff. She says, it is because of her experience with him that she eventually abandoned plans to pursue an advanced degree that would have helped her move up the ranks in the healthcare field.
“At this point, I can’t imagine myself doing anything else, honestly,” says Hernandez.
Beyond the patients and their families, it is also her professional family that keeps Hernandez coming back to work each day, despite the rigors of oncology nursing.
“We call ourselves the ‘Dream Team,’ because we all work so well together and because there are no egos; we all look out for one another,” she says. “Even the doctors. I’ve been so impressed by how caring they are and how well they really know the patients.”
And the patients feel the difference, says Oberhoff, whose cancer is now in remission. “Every single person at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center was incredible. Every. Single. Person. I couldn’t get over just how much of a culture of caring existed in that building. I experienced smiles, patience, face-to-face, two-way communication, and lots of it.”
The caring attitude, says Hernandez, continues even after treatment concludes, regardless of the outcome.
“The best moment in the world is when a patient gets the ‘all clear’ and gets to ring the victory bell we have hanging by the door,” Hernandez says. “Then, later, when they stop by, and we can see their color has returned, their hair has grown back, they have their strength back, there’s nothing quite like it.”
“But when we do lose someone, and we invariably do, even that has its bright side because we get to re-connect with the families. Seeing their faces when we walk into the funerals, hearing their stories, it’s clear they really appreciate what we’ve done to help their loved ones, and it really means a lot that we got to share the journey.”
To learn more about the family of experts at UT Health San Antonio MD Anderson Cancer Center, or to schedule an appointment, visit UTHealthsaMDAnderson.org or call 210-450-1000.