When Haley Spears, 24, walks through the doors of UW Medical Center’s oncology ward, she only makes it a few feet before a delighted nurse rushes up for a hug. Moments later, it happens again; more nurses come over, then a doctor. Soon, a group has gathered, exchanging hugs and happy greetings. It’s no surprise to those who know her.
“Haley touches those around her in a unique way,” says Rachel Brown, R.N., one of Spears’ former nurses. “She’s really good at finding the joy and humor in her situation, and that’s refreshing.”
Spears began feeling shoulder pain in 2014, but wrote it off as a pulled muscle from a long day working as a dog trainer in Longview, Washington. Her doctor’s office prescribed muscle relaxants, but within days, she was experiencing agonizing double vision and nausea. When she collapsed getting out of bed, her parents rushed her to the local emergency room; she stayed in the ICU for five days while doctors ran tests.
The day after Spears returned home, she received a call from an oncologist. “She told me that I had Burkitt’s lymphoma, and we needed to leave for UWMC that same day,” says Spears. In fact, she had three brain tumors, a spinal cord tumor and more tumors on her ovaries.
For the next seven months, Spears and her parents stayed in Seattle, moving between UW Medical Center and SCCA House, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance’s home away from home for patients and families. She celebrated her 21st birthday in a hospital bed. It was during her treatment that she met — and quickly became friends with — Brown.
“I was in isolation at the time,” Spears recalls. “I couldn’t even leave my room, so Rachel brought me cupcakes, a puzzle book and DVDs of her favorite TV show.”
“You get really emotionally invested with patients,” says Brown. “If someone’s having a bad day, it’s the nurses who are providing that emotional support. So it’s really important to take the time to get to know your patients, to allow them to trust you, because nurses are patient advocates as well.”
Caring for patients takes an emotional toll on oncology nurses. Brown has her own form of respite, heading outdoors to find peace and a spiritual connection in nature, whether it’s through hiking, skiing or surfing. The support of her colleagues helps, too. “The people I work with really get it. The friendships and the solidarity of community on this floor are why so many of us love our jobs,” she says.
“I had amazing care when I was here,” says Spears of UW Medical Center. “The connections that these nurses make with you — they go above and beyond expectations. They’re all incredible. It’s like a family, it really is.”
Today, Spears’ cancer is in remission, but her friendship with Brown continued long after her hospital stay. Since then, they’ve gone on whale-watching expeditions and photography trips, and had the occasional heart-to-heart about growing up. Brown says it’s a joy to see how Spears — who works as a caregiver for adults with developmental disabilities and intends to spend her career helping others — has thrived and grown in the years they’ve known each other.
“To have so many memories outside the hospital setting, and to see how well she’s doing now, that’s what makes those really hard days on the floor worth it,” says Brown.