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LUNG FORCE Heroes

Kristen T

My story is about my best friend's battle with lung cancer and the victory that was hers when she went to heaven.

As a brand new registered nurse starting out in the emergency department, you feel a lot of things: excited, nervous, maybe a little bit scared. In 2007, I began my career as an ER nurse. The year before, Maria began her career as an ER nurse as well. She started in what we called the chest pain center of our ER. Throughout the first several years of her career she became a very knowledgeable and skilled nurse that served as a mentor for other nurses in our department. We became friends very quickly and developed a wonderful work friendship that would later develop into a bond of friendship like no other.

In May 2013, I suffered sudden spontaneous pneumothorax. As a smoker, I had problems with coughing and shortness of breath on a regular basis, but at 29 years old, a sudden hospitalization was not what I thought would be in my future. For two weeks I battled my condition, which eventually required surgery to remove a wedged section of my lung so that my lung would stay inflated. During the time that I was in the hospital, Maria took care of me in the ICU for several of the shifts. She had transferred temporarily to ICU after some management changes in the ER, and we always joked that it was just in time to take care of me. Nurses make the worst patients you know. After my 13 day hospital stay, I was diagnosed with a 2nd pneumothorax on the other lung, and had to go back into the hospital for a second surgery. During this time, Maria became my rock. I still don't know to this day if I could have survived the emotional stress that my hospitalization caused me without her. This began our strong bond that lasted until the end. She came back to the ER shortly after I was able to come back.

Maria, age 49, was not only an excellent nurse, but she had a husband that absolutely adored her, four children, 5 grandchildren, and 1 grandchild on the way. She was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a friend, a mentor, and just an all around inspirational person. She would laugh with you, cry with you, or do whatever else you needed. Her personality was unlike any other. She had the ability to make even the darkest situation have some sort of hope, just by her positive outlook and way with words. Throughout the years after my health issues, our friendship grew stronger.

Last April, we decided to do something crazy, and we both left our full time jobs to do a travel assignment in Charleston SC at a hospital we had both always admired. After both working at our current hospital for 10 years, we received a lot of negativity, but I now know that everything happens for a reason. I am so glad we got this time together!! We explored, we worked, we ate SO much food...we enjoyed each other and had so much fun. After the Charleston contract we decided to do another contract a little closer to home in Laurinburg NC.

Maria had been complaining for about 3-4 weeks about a nagging cough. She didn't cough much, but just enough to want to call our doctor and maybe just get a chest X-ray. One night after working in Laurinburg, she decided to stop at our home ER in Florence because the cough was just getting worse and it was accompanied by pain. They did a CT scan and she received the diagnosis of lung cancer. The news was absolutely devastating.

Maria's mother passed away from breast cancer in 2009. Maria had said for years that she was preparing herself for breast cancer. She just knew that was what she was going to get. She even tried to convince one of our surgeons at our home hospital to remove her breasts so that she didn't have to worry about it. Of course her reply when she found out she had lung cancer...."well thank goodness I didn't get my boobs cut off". Typical Maria response.

I had to finish out my contract in Laurinburg alone and Maria went back to work at our home hospital, McLeod Regional Medical Center in Florence, SC. Being a nonsmoker for her entire life, Maria was able to start on an oral chemotherapy that her oncologist thought she would have a really good response to. She was given a diagnosis of stage 4 lung cancer. I had tee shirts designed and we did bracelets too, and raised a good deal of money for Maria. I think that, more than anything, seeing all of the support really helped her.

Maria did well for several months until around Christmas when she was becoming noticeably short of breath. She wanted to make it though the holidays without having to be in the hospital. I will never forget 3 days after Christmas when she walked into my house with tears rolling down her face saying "That was my last Christmas with my babies. I just know it. I am not going to make it until next Christmas". I knew she was right although I didn't want to admit it. A few days later she was admitted for a PE and only had a few discharges where she was able to stay home for 1-2 days at the most before having to be readmitted before her death.

Watching her in the hospital was a struggle. I would come up to see her, crawl in the bed with her, and we would either hug and cry, or lay there and laugh and talk like there was nothing wrong. I always said she was "my person," and she said the same about me. It's like we just got each other- we understood each other. She had good days and bad days. Eventually she required more and more oxygen, bipap, cpap, she was on the ventilator once for 5 days. Then they found a new spot in the right lung. Her breathing became worse, and within 6 days of that diagnosis she was being moved to the hospice house. She passed away the next day.

I miss her so much. The wound is still fresh, there is an empty place in my heart where she used to be. To know her was to love her, and I was SO lucky to have been her best friend. I truly believe that people are brought into your life for a reason and she was the best friend anyone could ever be for the past several years. My heart aches but I know that now she has beat cancer, and is no longer in pain and no longer short of breath. Maria was only diagnosed with lung cancer 6 months ago. She had no previous history of smoking and no true risk factors. Lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer in women. We need to beat lung cancer. Prevention as well as early diagnosis is key.

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