Being there: A nurse’s own bout with cancer gives her empathy for others facing illness
“I was diagnosed after I enrolled in Trinity’s College of Nursing,” 33-year-old Sonia McCallister says in soft, measured tones. Sunshine slants through window blinds in the library of the Trinity Rock Island campus, beginning to angle across a table where McCallister sits, talking about her life. “It was the first year, second semester.Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”
It’s the kind of thing we all fear, that day when the specter of death comes ambling down a busy hallway and decides you’re the one with whom he wishes to speak. Some welcome the conversation, others offer him money to go away, and still others, like McCallister simply say, “Not today, I’ve got too much to do.”
And so it was this mother of five stayed in school, all the while enduring physical exams, blood tests, chest X-rays, CT scans, bone marrow biopsies, chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant.
“It was very difficult,” McCallister admits. “But my instructors at Trinity were great. They understood what I was going through. If I had to suddenly walk out of a class because the chemo was making me sick, they understood. Assignment deadlines were extended for me if I needed it. One of my instructors, Tracy Poelvoorde (currently the Director of Nursing at Trinity College) even brought assignments to my bedside in the hospital.”
Is it necessary to experience great illness first-hand to be a great nurse? Perhaps not, but McCallister appreciates the feelings of empathy she can bring to her position as Clinical Patient Care Supervisor. As a supervisor, McCallister rotates among the three Quad-Cities campuses in Moline, Rock Island and Bettendorf, helping other nurses with medical procedures, answering their questions, monitoring the patient population, helping with patient evaluations and talking to families.
On days when the hospital feels like a sunless land, seeing a nurse like McCallister can make all of the difference. She’s been there. She knows the humility of facing and enduring test after test. Every prod, every poke, and every invasion of one’s body matches modern medical efficiency against gray despair. McCallister understands this, and she understands it on a palpable level which patients and fellow nurses see and feel when she is with them.
In May of 2007, McCallister received her Bachelor of Science degree from Trinity and is currently applying to graduate schools to further her education with a Master of Science degree.
Asked why nursing is important to her, McCallister responds immediately. “At one point during my illness I went into a coma and it was the nurses who kept me alive. I don’t know who they were but I’m paying back. And today I know that many times patients aren’t even aware that I’m here, that I’m the one with the responsibility to keep them going, just as someone did for me.” Every once in a while you run across people who have the knowledge of sickness in their eyes and in their demeanor, but it comes as a surprise when you see it in someone young and vibrant, like McCallister.
She obviously never met the scientist Thomas Hodgkin, for whom an awful disease was named 175 years ago. It’s too bad. They each could have benefited from the encounter. This single mother of five surely would have impressed him with her ability to juggle a thousand things even while beating his disease.
Afternoon moves toward evening and sunlight in the Trinity library begins to flatten out as it reaches the tables in the center of the room. McCallister gathers up her belongings after another day of work. Patients will have to wait until tomorrow to see her again. Light fades, time passes, and she has children to pick up.