Patient Marlisse and Martha with the nurses

Nurse and patient form powerful bond during pandemic

This month, City of Hope joins hospitals around the country in celebrating nurses as part of Nurses Week and Oncology Nursing Month.
“The role of our oncology nurses in caring for our patients is truly irreplaceable,” said Chief Nursing Officer Susan Brown, Ph.D., R.N. “The nurse has a direct and continuous relationship with patients, safely delivers very complex care, listens to their needs, and is often seen holding their hand in the middle of the night. Not every nurse can be an oncology nurse. Compassion and kindness are always the right interventions. And as much as we may help our patients, they give us so much in return that it is indeed a privilege to do what we do.”
Michael Caligiuri, M.D., president of City of Hope National Medical Center and the Deana and Steve Campbell Physician-in-Chief Distinguished Chair, often shares a story about his own personal experience as a patient in the care of a nurse.
“I underwent an exploratory laparotomy at Roswell Park Cancer Institute 46 years ago.  I don’t remember the doctor who performed the surgery, but I remember the nurse who cared for me,” he said. “She was kind and compassionate, and always willing to do what she could to relieve the pain. Nurses are a source of comfort and healing at a time when you need it most. Being a nurse is as much a calling as it is a profession.”
Like Caligiuri, so many of City of Hope’s patients talk about the comfort that our nurses bring to them at the most vulnerable and frightening time of their lives.

A Shocking Diagnosis

Marlisse Reina (pictured top right) is one of them. She speaks so highly of the nurses who cared for her during her stay with City of Hope for treatment of Stage 3C ovarian cancer. She said her nurses became like family to her, and they have come to feel the same way about her.
Reina was first diagnosed in 2019, becoming a patient of Stephen Lee, M.D. assistant clinical professor in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, as her surgeon; and Daphne Stewart, M.D., associate clinical professor in the Department of Medical Oncology & Therapeutics Research, as her medical oncologist.
Just five days into her diagnosis, her boyfriend Brock texted her to see if they still had their date to go a Dodgers game, unaware at that time that she was sick. “Our third date ended up being in the hospital,” Reina said. “When he messaged me about the game, I told him I was at City of Hope and explained what was going on. I assumed I wouldn’t hear from him again, you know, newly dating, cancer diagnosis, not knowing what was ahead of me. But he asked if he could come visit me.”
Reina describes that date as “intense and meaningful.”
“As I was lying in the hospital bed, I just put all the information out there so Brock knew exactly what he was getting into. I said, ‘Just so you know, I cannot carry my own children.’ Due to my ovarian cancer diagnosis, I had to have a full hysterectomy at 34. I explained to him that I did have some of my eggs frozen even before my diagnosis because I was getting older, so I said I could have a baby via surrogate. I wanted to be honest with him. He teared up, held my hand and said, ‘I’m all in.’”

A Conveyor Belt of Visitors

In addition to the hysterectomy during that first eight-and-a-half-hour surgery performed by Lee, Reina also had a partial colostomy to remove residual cancer in her colon, as well as partial removal of some abdominal tissue and part of her liver. She nicknamed all her procedures “Ned,” in hopes that one day she would be “NED,” having “No Evidence of Disease.”  
This was in May 2019, and at that time, pre-COVID-19, she had what she calls “a conveyor belt of visitors.” This included members of her large Italian family and friends, and her “work sisters,” fellow teachers from Oak Avenue Intermediate School in Temple City, not far from our Duarte campus, where she teaches eighth grade.  

Cancer During COVID-19

When her cancer returned in 2020, the world was in the middle of the pandemic, and Reina said she could feel the difference when her family and friends could no longer be there to support her.
It was at this time that Reina said her nurses became an extension of her own family. For her next surgery and chemotherapy, she was alone and isolated from her loved ones. That’s when City of Hope’s nurses stepped up to be there for her.
“When I had that surgery, I woke up by myself, without my family around me,” Reina said. “It meant so much for me to have my nurses there just to hold my hand.” 
One of those nurses was Martha Lajpop (picture above, second from left), a clinical oncology nurse in the Women’s Clinic, who joined City of Hope three years ago. She said that, especially during the time of COVID-19, her patients are heroes to her, as much as she is surely a hero to them.

Filling the Family Gap

“During the pandemic, I thought it was especially important to be a nurse to Marlisse, but also her friend,” Lajpop said. “My goal each day is to be there for my patients as much as I can, and to fill the gap when family members are not allowed to visit.”
On one afternoon, Lajpop noticed Reina in her room, with her head down. She was crying.
Lajpop and several other nurses gathered around her, respectfully standing vigil to give their patient and friend support and peace while she was weeping.
As it turned out, they were tears of joy. Reina lifted her head and through her tears told the oncology nurses surrounding her that she had just been told her cancer was in remission.

A Huge Win

“My nurses immediately surrounded me even closer, and we celebrated,” said Reina, who takes the chemotherapy drug Zejula daily to remain in remission. “This was a huge win. And even though my actual family wasn’t around me, it didn’t bother me. I felt like I was surrounded by family. In that moment, I didn’t feel alone, and I knew my nurses where cheering for me. Martha was my nurse, and she remains my friend.”
Reina is doing well and hopes to be strong enough soon to return to her love of playing competitive volleyball and snowboarding. As the pandemic subsides, she also looks forward to being able to travel abroad again, with her sights set on Iceland as her next dream vacation. Her biggest dream is that she and Brock will one day be parents.
“Overall, I see this journey of mine as a blessing,” she said. “And I could not have navigated through it without my nurses at my side.”