A good dose of empathy can help nurses identify with patients and improve overall care beyond the clinical realm.
For Camille G. Bejar, BSN, RN, whose parents both died in their mid 50s from cancer, empathy runs particularly deep.
Bejar's journey toward nursing began in 2008, right around the same time as her dad was diagnosed with stage 4 kidney cancer. Just a few months later, oncologists told Bejar's mom that she had stage 3 breast cancer.
Knowing the emotional toll of helping a loved one deal with cancer initially steered Bejar away from the oncology side of nursing.
"I didn't think I could be an oncology nurse," admits the 28-year-old Bejar. "What I was going through with my parents was very difficult, and I thought for sure I did not want to do that."
Bejar's father ultimately died in February 2010, and her mother's life ended 10 months later on Christmas day. Neither parent was able to see her graduate in 2012 from the Chamberlain College of Nursing, but Bejar threw herself into her studies in an effort to honor her parents and pursue what she now knew to be her true passion.
During her last clinical rotation, Bejar's perspective changed when she was assigned to a medical oncology floor. A friend offered to switch with her if the first day was too much, but the experience ultimately changed her career path.
"Fortunately, I had one of the best patients I've ever had during clinicals on the oncology floor, and she had advanced cancer," remembers Bejar. "She was very positive, and she was going into hospice. I did not understand how she could have such a positive attitude. She told me, 'You've got to just take things day by day.' And she did. She gave me that strength, and I was able to be there for her. From that day on, I have carried that positivity."
These days, Bejar regularly sees family members who are dealing with a loved one's cancer. "I've been in their shoes," she says. "I know how many couches they've slept on, how many holidays in hospitals."
FEARLESS PROVIDER Camille Bejar, BSN, RN, channeled her grief after losing loved ones to cancer into becoming an oncology staff nurse at Cancer Treatment Centers of America, Zion, Ill. photo courtesy the facility
Knowing What Not to Do
In watching countless nurses deal with her own parents, Bejar developed a sense of compassionate nursing that transcended the text books. From these interactions, she learned the right way to do things, and occasionally she learned what to avoid.
"Sometimes the nurses kind of shrugged my parents off," laments Bejar, who now sports a wrist tattoo with a "J" for her father, Jose, and an "M" for her mother, Marie, surrounding a cross. "They wouldn't check on them. I understand that nurses are very busy with other patients, but there were times when my parents would not be checked on for an hour.
"Nurses can pop their heads in to make themselves known and say, 'I'm still here. I'm sorry I have other tasks I need to complete, but if you need anything let me know, or I can get my PCT to help you with anything.' Some nurses just don't have that caring attitude. They are just there to make the money."
Having an uncommon amount of empathy is an asset on the oncology floor where Bejar routinely interacts with patients about topics clinical and practical. "I have been in many hospitals," she says with a degree of weariness.
"I can tell you where they have good food, where they have the best chapel, where you can just sit. I'm able to give that to the families. Nursing is difficult, and at the end of the day I'm exhausted. I don't eat for 13 hours because I want to put my patients first. I want to be a good nurse for my patients no matter what."
Bejar is relatively new to the field, but she does not hesitate to caution prospective nurses that the occupation is stressful with unique demands on the body and the mind. "If you don't have the compassion for it, then don't go into it," she says. "Some nurses are just not meant to be nurses. They have the degree, but not the intangibles."
The Mother Standard
Richard J Stephenson founded Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) in 1988 in honor of his mother who lost her battle with cancer in 1982. From that moment, Stephenson longed to create a better experience for cancer patients, one which empowers them with options and hope.
The commitment to the so-called Mother Standard of care became the organization's guiding principle, and it's a philosophy that Bejar fully embraces. CTCA cancer doctors do their part through a multidisciplinary, individualized approach to cancer treatment.
"I would love to grow with Cancer Treatment Centers of America, because we're so much like a family," enthuses Bejar. "I was just hired in May 2013, and I learn something new every day. I learn something from my patients' families. Down the line, I would like to go for my nurse practitioner degree. You must keep expanding your mind, because there is better practice out there to help keep patients safe. Here at CTCA, they are always encouraging that, and they have classes to ensure that nurses keep on learning."
New knowledge may ultimately take Bejar into the area of research, and perhaps she can someday see the end of the cancer scourge.
"I'm hoping there will be a cure for breast cancer especially, because it's so common," says Bejar with a sigh. "Having the best preventative measures can hopefully decrease it down the line. Unfortunately, with kidney cancer like with my dad, you don't see the symptoms until it gets later into the disease. I would love to also do research someday, but I need a good couple of years under my belt."
Greg Thompson is a freelance writer.