November 26, 2013 | by Roberta Nichols
"If there are indeed angels who have lived amongst us, then I believe that they have come to us as nurses, and none graced our lives more than Angela in her life and career. And for that I am forever grateful to her."
– Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the Francis & Kathleen McNamara Distinguished Chair in Hematology and Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation at City of Hope
– In a letter read at Walk for Hope 2013 about Angela Calvanico, R.N.
Even during the last weeks of her life in May, when Angela Calvanico, R.N., was fighting breast cancer, she asked to be put on the schedule, confident she'd be able to work her usual shifts as a nurse in the 3C infusion unit at City of Hope.
"She was just about one of the best nurses we ever had," recalled Debra Varsier-Thomas, R.N., clinical nurse III, who knew Calvanico for 11 years. "She never let her disease get in her way of taking care of patients."
Like other City of Hope nurses, Calvanico embodied the institution’s core values of scientific knowledge, technical acumen and boundless compassion. But Calvanico also had a special empathy for City of Hope patients. She was one of them. And as both a nurse and a patient, she understood better than anyone what patients need. Doctors and nurses at City of Hope have taken those lessons to heart.
On Nov. 3, during the annual Walk for Hope, City of Hope nurses and physicians came together to honor and celebrate the thousands of breast cancer patients who walked – and those who couldn't. Calvanico died in May at age 53.
Dannee Silva, R.N., clinical nurse II, read a tribute from Calvanico’s friend, colleague and physician, Stephen J. Forman, M.D., the chair of the Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.
"Although we all knew Angela to be a nurse of incomparable skill, sensibility and sensitivity, many of us witnessed her personal courage and grace while we cared for her. Over the course of her two illnesses, I never heard Angela truly complain, or lament the challenges to her health that she confronted as she was treated for two different cancers," Forman wrote. "There was never a moment, where she ever lost her focus or her pride in being a City of Hope oncology nurse. As we cared for her, she continued, until she no longer could, caring for her own patients, coming to work and watching over her own family, too."
Chief Nursing and Patient Services Officer Shirley Johnson, R.N., presented Calvanico’s husband and two sons with her 25-year City of Hope pin.
Calvanico was only 25, and a new nurse, when diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1984 in her native New York. Following treatments, she and her husband, Al, moved to California in 1987, and she began working at City of Hope, reviewing charts for Quality Assurance. Ultimately, however, she missed working with patients, and returned to staff nursing.
She also resumed the normal joys of a healthy life. She and Al bought a home in La Verne and began a family. (Their son, Al, is now a 23-year-old CPA, and their youngest, 21-year-old Michael, is a senior at UCLA.)
That normalcy was shattered in December 2011 when Calvanico was diagnosed with breast cancer. By June 2012, the chemotherapy seemed to have beaten the cancer back, yet last December it returned.
On unit 3C, Calvanico’s colleagues recall their friend and her legacy.
"She had a great personality and a good outlook, and was always positive, even after the recurrence of breast cancer," Varsier-Thomas said.
Calvanico often precepted new nurses, orienting them to the unit and giving them the confidence to care for patients on their own, yet she never coddled newcomers. "She didn’t want you to sit back and watch," said Clinical Nurse II Melanie Rhodes, R.N. "She wanted you to do it yourself."
"She was a great educator, and was very thorough in her process," said Diana Wongcharoensuk, R.N., clinical nurse III, who trained under Calvanico. "Watching her with patients inspired me to treat my patients like she did."
Though consummately professional, Calvanico also knew when to inject sly humor into her soothing bedside manner. Wongcharoensuk recalled one instance when she was precepting under Calvanico and they encountered an anxious patient who was about to start chemotherapy. "He told her, ‘I hope you’re good at this because my veins are bad.’"
"Angela told him it was her first day and that she was precepting under me," Wongcharoensuk said. Before his eyes could even widen, however, Calvanico had deftly inserted the needle, and confessed that she was actually the seasoned instructor. "I didn’t feel a thing," he told them with a smile.
"Angela was always very thorough, fair and had a very calm demeanor which kept the unit going," recalled Rhodes. "She also put on a very brave face. You would look at her and you wouldn’t know that she was sick."
Calvanico told her husband that she felt she brought something extra to her job because, as a cancer survivor, she shared an instant bond with patients.
"Knowing that she had cancer, they felt more at home here," confirmed Rhodes. "They definitely felt more comfortable in this environment because they knew somebody here who had been through it."
One of Calvanico’s fellow cancer patients and fellow nurses, Eufrecita ("Precy") Francisco, R.N., said that Calvanico’s support helped her through the physically and emotionally punishing treatments. "She was very compassionate and loving," said Francisco, brushing back tears just as her colleagues had done in recollecting their friend.
Calvanico also was convincingly hopeful, recalled Francisco. "She’d say, ‘You’re going to be OK.’"
"That’s my attitude right now, too," Francisco said.