Modern Day Heroes

July 7, 2009
Colleen O'Leary

Having just celebrated the 4th of July and given the state of unrest in the world we live in and the role that the United States has chosen to take, we certainly hear a lot about heroes today.

Having just celebrated the 4th of July and given the state of unrest in the world we live in and the role that the United States has chosen to take, we certainly hear a lot about heroes today. That word, hero, can invoke thoughts of a particular person or a group of people. Certainly, those brave men and women who have fought or are fighting for freedom over the years fit the definition of what most of us would think of as a hero. Not to take anything away from those heroes, I found myself defining hero a bit differently as of late.

Last week I went with my friend to see the movie My Sister’s Keeper. Don’t worry, I won’t ruin the ending for any of you who have not seen the movie yet. I don’t often go to “those kind” of movies. A long time ago I made a conscious decision about what kind of entertainment in which I would participate in order to keep myself healthy in mind and soul. But that’s another blog.

In part one, this week we’ll talk about just what a hero is and how we encounter them everyday in what we do. The basics of the movie, without giving anything away, are that this young girl has cancer and her younger sister has spent her whole life donating blood, tissues, and organs in order to keep her alive. Now, she’s had enough and doesn’t want to give up any more of herself. It’s a heart wrenching dilemma for the entire family. But as I sat and watched and cried and laughed I realized that this was not just about this family. It was not just a Hollywood version of cancer. I’m not a movie critic by any means but I do know that what I saw in this story, I’ve seen in different shapes and forms in many patients and families over the years. The often misunderstood but difficult decisions that need to be made on a daily, sometimes even hourly basis can be overwhelming. Much of the time, those decisions are not understood by others. How often have you said or heard others saying things like “How can they do that?” “What do you mean they are giving this treatment to an 85 year old?” or “They can’t just stop treatment now and give up, there’s more to do”. I don’t believe for an instant that the decisions that our patients and families have to make are ever entered into lightly by them. The dictionary speaks of a hero as being courageous or as someone who is fighting for a cause.

In this movie, each and every character was courageous in their own struggles and each was fighting for their own cause. The same is true of our patients and their families. I cannot imagine the courage it takes to say “No matter how sick I get, no matter how difficult the treatment, I will not give up.” I cannot imagine the courage it takes to say, “Stop the fight”. And if you are the lone man out, if you don’t have the support of your family and friends in that decision, then you have to be even more courageous in the fight for your cause.

We, as oncology nurses, are in a position to support and encourage these heroes as they struggle through. We can be the one who might not understand, but still support. We can be the one to make sure that, once given all the information needed to make the best decision for them or their loved one, even though we might not agree, we uphold and do not question. These are the heroes I see every day. These are the heroes that struggle to make it one more day. These are the heroes that I can stand behind, I can support, I can be the crutch for when they may a little help, I can be in the frontline so that they can fight the toughest battle raging behind.

Heroes are defined as a person of distinguished valor or enterprise in danger, or fortitude in suffering; a prominent or central personage in any remarkable action or event; hence, a great or illustrious person. How often does that not describe our patients and their families? As Emerson says, “Each man is a hero and oracle to somebody.” I am honored to say that I have met many heroes in my career and I am certain to encounter many more.