It’s a small room, but the view is large. Through its windows you can see the Columbia River and across it to Mount Adams and Underwood Mountain.
It’s a small room. Five recliner chairs, a couple of stools and a nurse’s station crowd the space. It’s a small room, but what happens here is not. It’s where people come to try and kill the thing that’s killing them.
The Infusion Center, as the room is called, at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital is where cancer patients come to receive chemotherapy.
Other intravenous drug treatments — called infusion therapy — happen here, too. Patients needing ongoing blood transfusions come here, as do those who need IV antibiotic therapy, treatment for lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, anemia and other conditions. But three-quarters of the patients sitting in the recliner chairs are battling cancer. The patients, their doctor and particularly the nurses who staff the Infusion Center are on the front lines together.
“The relationship between a chemo patient and a nurse becomes pretty special,” says Infusion Center nurse Carrie Kennedy. “Some patients are in here 6 to 7 hours at a time. This room just really becomes a second home to a lot of people.”
It is Kennedy and Lori Kitchin, the center’s primary nurses, and a staff of three relief nurses who see the patients week after week for hours at a time. They search for “good” veins in which to insert the IV needles. They keep a constant eye on their patients for signs of drug reactions. They talk with their patients about the drugs and how they work and what side effects to expect. And, often, they just talk to their patients.
“You’re in this little room and there’s nowhere to go,” Kitchin says. “So you talk.” Patients talk about world affairs. They talk about their families. They talk about their past and their future and their fears.
Benita Holmes is no stranger to the Infusion Center. Seven years ago she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a mastectomy, then underwent several months of chemotherapy at PHRMH. (Infusion therapy at that time was done in another part of the hospital; the new Infusion Center opened in July.)
Holmes, 47, then underwent check-ups every few months for five years and the cancer never returned.
“At five years, they said I could act as if there had never been cancer and go to yearly check-ups,” Holmes says. A year later, in September 2001, the cancer was back — with a vengeance.
“It was on my liver, it was everywhere,” she says. Her doctor gave her 1 to 2 years to live. She went home and told her two kids, then age 7 and 10, that she had cancer again.
Holmes is one of the miracles at the Infusion Center. She’s been getting chemo so frequently for so long that doctors inserted a “port” in her chest where the drugs are injected. But the endless hours spent sitting in a recliner in the Infusion Center have worked. Holmes, who says she’s “95 percent better,” is once again beating the cancer.
“I just want everyone to know,” she says. “It’s a miracle.” In her weekly visits to the Infusion Center over the past two years, Holmes has seen a lot of people come and go. But one constant has been the nurses.
“I love them,” says Holmes, who frequently confides in Kennedy as the nurse is getting her chemo going. “They’re awesome. They’re friends and caregivers.”
Lois Allen is another regular in the Infusion Center. A year-and-a-half ago, shortly after undergoing gall bladder surgery, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Initial chemotherapy treatments were successful, but soon a large tumor appeared. She’s now on her second round of chemo as doctors try to shrink the tumor.
Lori Kitchin searched fervently during Allen’s visit last week for a vein to insert the IV needle in.
“We’re running out of veins,” Kitchin says. It’s just another hazard that goes along with chemotherapy. Allen hates this part worse than almost anything about chemo, yet she still calls Kitchin the “trooper.” Kitchin finally gets the needle in, hooks up the IV and the drugs begin dripping into Allen’s body.
Allen has the distinction of being the first patient to use the new Infusion Center when it opened in July.
“I thought they should name it after me,” she jokes. Kitchin agrees it has a nice ring to it.
Infusion therapy was formerly done in the short stay/same-day surgery unit of the hospital. Although the space was larger, it was much less private. But for many of the patients, including Allen, the space was far less important than the people in it.
“It didn’t make any difference to me as long as Lori came with it,” says Allen of the move to the new center. “The girls are real good.”
It’s “the girls” who are with the patients from the beginning of chemotherapy to the end. When patients and their doctor decide on a course of chemo, they immediately meet with Kennedy or Kitchin to discuss the treatment.
“We talk with them about how the drugs work, what the side effects may be and what to expect,” Kennedy says. “We want them to know what they’re going to be going through and get them prepared. We want to make sure this is the decision they want to make.”
Sometimes patients get better. Sometimes they don’t.
“You work with a lot of patients you know are going to die and that’s hard,” Kitchin says. “But you’re also part of a really unique time in their life. People tend to open up and share a lot with you.”
The view out the window of the Infusion Center is nice. But it’s the larger view patients here get, as they pass the time in the recliner chairs, that’s more important. They talk to the nurses about world affairs. They talk about their families. They talk about their past and their future and their fears.
“They start really examining a lot of things in their lives and sharing that with you,” Kitchin says. “That part is what really makes the job — we’re helping them through a really hard time in their lives.”