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LUNG FORCE Heroes

Brandy Z.

Lung cancer is destructive; it destroys lives, families, and futures. I can speak to this personally because my life has been affected by the devasting consequences of lung cancer. Not only lung cancer, but cancer in general. My story is unique because not only has my life become forever changed by the passing of my young 67-year-old father just 3 short months ago, but as a Registered Nurse I have a unique perspective when it comes to cancer.

I received my Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing (BSN) from Montana State University-Bozeman in 2009 and at 36-years-old I began working as a Registered Nurse in 2010 on an oncology and medical unit. As a new graduate, I was intimidated to care for patients with terminal cancer diagnoses and end-of-life patients. As I grew in my nursing practice, I grew as a person and my evolution from timid nurse to a confident advocate of cancer patients was inevitable. My passion became evident within myself, to those I cared for, and my nursing peers. My heart to serve not only the patient’s medical needs, but the patients and families emotional needs as well, has been, unequivocal.

Since my nursing career began in 2010 I have cared for hundreds of cancer and end-of-life patients. For me, it has become something more than a career, but a devotion. My passion and experience caring for those with an imminent death became more personal when my father was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and given only days to live. His diagnosis came as a surprise to most, but I suspected something more was going on with him.

My dad and I had a very strong relationship. We had a mutual respect and love for each other that I considered to be extremely special. Our weekly conversations were more than just what was new and how was the weather, our conversations were without fail always regarding something on a much deeper level. We discussed our faith in Christ. We discussed politics and world events. We discussed the hard-knocks of life. We discussed our passions for a job well done. We discussed all of those things that bring two people closer spiritually and emotionally. I admire my dad Gordie in a way that I would describe him as my hero.

To tell my dad’s story as a ‘LUNG FORCE Hero’ for the American Lung Association is an honor. Advocating for an increased awareness of lung cancer is extremely important to me especially given the fact that according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) CANCER was the second leading cause of death in the United States in 2017. Heart Disease ranked number one with 635,260 deaths out of approximately 2.7 million reported deaths; Cancer’s second place ranking was just 37,222 less deaths. The fact that our nation lost 598,038 people to cancer is staggering. Especially given that LUNG CANCER is the leading cause of cancer deaths for both men and women annually. I believe this statistic is frightening and not well known.

I believe it is human nature to avoid that which we fear. It is fear where my cancer story really begins. It begins with a young man born in 1951 who was born into a generation not understanding the dangers of cigarette smoking. The fear did not exist back in those days as cigarettes were touted as the “in” thing to do. No one worried about the consequences. How could such a tiny little pleasure turn into a nightmare for so many?

My father, Gordie, is the young man who is at the center of this story. It begins with him smoking cigarettes, for the first time, at the ripe age of 12-years-old. I imagine, at this point, he never could have guessed that some years later he would fear for his life and it would end as a result of cigarettes.

I remember as a young girl telling myself I would never smoke cigarettes, I thought they were dirty and gross. Both of my parents smoked back in those years and I vividly recall on so many occasions being in an automobile with the windows up and surrounded by black tar. It burned my eyes, stuffed up my nose, and made me cough. How could they have ever believed these disgusting things wouldn’t be bad for your health? Well, with big tobacco companies pushing their product to everyone as chic, I imagine, it would have been difficulty to resist the temptation.

I kept my promise to myself and never smoked but being born in 1974 I was fortunate enough to be a generation somewhat educated on the truth about cigarettes. The fact that cigarettes are deadly! This certainly never stopped big tobacco companies from encouraging my generation to partake in the deed. I was one of the children conscientious of the dangers, the fear was real. So much so that I dedicated my pursuit of healthy choices to the profession of nursing.

As a nurse, I have felt just how frightening a cancer diagnosis can be and to consider the consequences of cancer is devastating! Period! Many people are reluctant to go to their doctor in fear of the worst possible diagnosis and may hesitate to seek care. This was true for my dad. Hoping for the best while at the same time feeling that nagging fear of the worst and burying his head in the sand.

I believe for my dad and many others diagnosed with LUNG cancer, they are particularly fraught with guilt and fear. My dad had stopped smoking several years ago and retired from his career at about that same time; I know he was not feeling well and that he may have suspected something serious. Since his retirement in 2015 we would discuss a few of his medical issues, I know dad was proud to have a daughter that was a nurse and was happy to be able to confided his concerns with me. We discussed the typical diagnoses that someone in their 60s might have, but just prior to his death he told me that he had asthma and began using an inhaler. I feared the worst!

I knew better that he didn’t have asthma. I suspected he had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) as a result of his smoking history with a strong suspicion that he had lung cancer too. I spoke with him about both on occasion. I asked him if he would go in and have tests to check for both and he would tell me that he would “die” when the good Lord saw fit. This was his only way of coping with his fear of cancer; giving it to the Lord!

I believe my dad was driven by the fear of a lung cancer diagnosis and couldn’t fathom going through treatment or being the focus of sympathetic attention. My dad would never have conceded to chemotherapy, radiation, or any other treatment. To him the stigma of these kept him from finding out the truth about what was going on within his body. It was this fear that inevitably snuffed out his beautiful life.

My dad was an outdoorsman, I like to refer to him as my “mountain man daddy!” He loved the outdoors and was an avid fisherman and hunter. He owned horses and loved going up to feed them daily. Though I would consider it a chore, he saw it more as an opportunity to be within nature and visit his good friends; the horses, elk, deer, and even the little critters scouring around the countryside.

My dad proudly told stories of his many hunts but was particularly fond of his years hunting elk. He would love to share his knowledge and tracking skills with others who had not yet ever harvested an elk; boy would he ever glow knowing he helped someone fulfill a dream. In fact, just weeks prior to his death dad harvest his largest elk and was so proud of his achievement. Even if he didn’t have the oomph to fully harvest the elk himself due to his extreme weakness and fatigue. Fortunately for dad, he had so many that loved him that they were able to honor dad by completing the harvest for him.

Over the past several years my brother confided in me that dad just didn’t have the same pep-in-his-step that he always had when they would hunt. He attributed it to “old age” and that dad just needed to get out and be more active since his retirement. My rugged ole dad who could out walk, out shoot, out stalk anyone far and wide was failing. It broke my heart to hear this about him, especially because I just knew his decline was from all those years of being a prisoner to the cigarette. My worst fear was becoming real, I knew it was cancer.

My dad’s story seems to have come and went by abruptly for me. I live in North Dakota and my dad in my home state of Montana, thus, most of our interactions were over the telephone. Even with these brief interactions I could tell he wasn’t well; he was short of breath just speaking to me over the phone. Fortunately, I did have the opportunity this fall to take my 20-year-old son with me to a political rally in Missoula Montana and was able to stop and see dad on our way home.

My strong resilient dad was weak, frail, and cranky. He took us out for lunch and could hardly hold a conversation and was anxious to get back home. My dad was a proud man and I believe he needed to hurry home so we would not be able see just how bad off he was. This broke my heart and even though my dad obviously was not well, he still tried his best to be the happy-go-lucky dad and granddad we knew. After we left, I shared with my son that I believed that grandpa wouldn’t be with us much longer.

Usually, I talked to my dad weekly and didn’t noticed that he hadn’t called in a few weeks until the middle of December. I had undergone a surgery and so I was focused on recovering while at the same time preparing for a lovely Christmas for my family. My conversations with my father slipped my mind. I spoke with him briefly a short time after my surgery. He wanted to know if I was doing well and our conversation was cut short, he offered an excuse why he had to go in a rush. I didn’t think anything of it.

On Christmas day I thought about calling dad and the day flew by without a call. Our three boys spent the day opening presents and playing, we were pre-occupied with the usual Christmas busyness. I didn’t get the chance to call him. For the next few days I was cleaning up from the holiday, helping the boys put together toys and watching them play. One evening I was assembling the new keyboard they received from their grandmother when I received numerous missed calls from my brother. When I called him back he franticly told me dad was in the hospital and that dad asked him to call me and let me know.

I called and talked with dad and he told me he had severe pneumonia, he could hardly speak. I could tell he was very weak, he sounded scared, he asked me numerous questions about how long it would be until he would be better and what to expect with pneumonia. I shared with him, that in my experience they needed to do a few specific tests to determine the severity of the pneumonia. My husband, who was a Critical Care Respiratory Care Therapist for nearly 30 years knew as well as I did that if he was truly that ill he needed to be transferred to a larger hospital for specialized care. He was hesitant to go anywhere else. I was confused.

It wasn’t until the following day that my nagging suspicion it was more than pneumonia became evident. The reality of my dad’s outcome was gut-wrenching! I called my dad’s nurse because I didn’t feel I was getting the entire story. It was then that I discovered that my dad would be going on “comfort care” and that they were keeping him comfortable with morphine. I knew exactly, at that very moment, what my dad’s prognosis was, it was death. My heart sank, my fear was real, my suspicions true. I knew he withheld the truth from me out of pure fear. He didn’t want to believe it!

My husband and I immediately drove the 10 hour drive to be with my dad. When I arrived, he was so weak and listless. Unable to have a conversation. I was told he had not eaten for the past several weeks. My father was lying in the bed before me, not the man I knew. This was not my dad. His body was present, but my dad was not in there. In and out of a medication stupor, he held out for his sibling to arrive from Oregon. Once they arrived, he tried his best to stay alert for them and acknowledged their presence, he would open his eyes and nod, that was all he had left in him. His words were gone.

I tried to be the mediator for the situation as I had my end-of-life nursing experience. I did my best to keep everyone informed on the death and dying process without being overbearing and coming across as a know-it-all. I did my best to balance being the patient’s daughter and being familiar with what I was witnessing. I comforted my step-mom with things we would be seeing and what to expect with the dying process. She was appreciative. 

There were times that I felt helpless to speak out because I knew that the nursing staff had the ability to expedite my father’s death and end his suffering. Yet, I didn’t want to overtaking the situation from my step-mom. She was struggling with his death, as was I, but I also knew there was no need prolong his suffering. You see I know just how ugly a respiratory death can be, it was difficult to witness him struggling to breath. Family did not want to see him suffer. The end-of-life process is a fine balancing act. You don’t want to lose your family member and it’s a struggle between life and a peaceful death.

Once we know the outcome is death, we reach a point where we have to reconcile that “death is inevitable.” Would we prefer for our family member to die a dignified death without suffering? I say “yes!” For the family witnessing the death, it can be either a “good” death or a “bad” death. Just as birth is a part of life, so is death.

You see, I knew my step-mom was stunned by his diagnosis; she and her family thought his symptoms were heart related and that he might need “stents.” Most certainly death was not anywhere in her thoughts. I was so sad for her because her fear allowed her to assume something less severe than the diagnosis dad received. My step-mom was about to lose her beloved husband of nearly 23 years and would have to live every day, from that day, without him.

My 20-year-old son had arrived at the hospital shortly before me. He hardly left his grandpa’s side. He spent the first night sleeping in the recliner in dad’s room. Dad died on the evening of Sunday December 31st after being in the hospital for only three days. He came in thinking he had pneumonia and left knowing his death was imminent.

Dad died with his grandson and daughter kneeling at one side of his bed, we grasped each other in grief held his hand and prayed. On the other side was his loving wife holding his hand and weeping in pain. He died surrounded by his family. He died from LUNG CANCER.

My dad’s final breath was his relief from the physical pain and the fear that lung cancer would snuff out his life. Lung cancer won, my dad and family lost. We lost a great man! Too soon! He will be forever loved and missed. My dad, Gordon Joseph Suda, is forever lost to this world because of his fear of lung cancer.

Let’s join together and make a difference for those who also live in fear, remove the stigma and increase awareness. This is why I advocate! For those like my dad whom live in fear, let’s kill cancer!

First published: April 4, 2019

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Hero stories are the point of view of the Hero and not necessarily the American Lung Association. The Lung Association does not endorse any specific provider, facility or treatment.

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