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A bittersweet anniversary

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Nanny radiation bell.JPGBy April Thomas

April began working at MD Anderson as a new graduate nurse in May 2004 in the Department of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. She remained there for seven years, worked six months in the Post Anesthesia Care Unit and now is in the Gastrointestinal/Colorectal Clinic. 

December 19, 2011. That's the day that Nanny completed Proton Therapy treatment. But instead of hitting the gong in the Proton Therapy Center to symbolize the end of her lung cancer treatment, she wanted to ring the bell in the Radiation Treatment Center. Her late husband, JL Pennington, had donated it in 2001 after completing his prostate cancer treatment.

"J.L., can you hear me?" she shouted as the bell sounded off. She was accompanied by family and friends. She held hands with her radiation oncologist, Ritsuko Komaki, M.D., as she rang the bell. 

Today marks a year since Nanny's last treatment. This time, though, she will celebrate in heaven with her husband of 57 years. 

Losing Nanny

Nanny passed away two days after a PET scan revealed no evidence of lung cancer, seven months after she rang the bell. She was hospitalized with pneumonia. I prayed that the good news would give her the strength she needed to get better. 

Unfortunately, the infection spread and she developed sepsis. She went to the ICU for critical care. 

I remember her telling me she wasn't afraid to die, but she wasn't ready.  She wanted to be here for me and the rest of the family.

Looking for answers after Nanny's death
I find myself struggling to understand why Nanny's gone, questioning myself and God. She was such a vibrant lady, full of love. A true fighter. 

What happened? Why didn't I do more? Why didn't I advocate for her like I did for many patients I took care of before her? Why didn't I do these things? 

It's different being on the other side of this war with cancer. 

As I began to talk with people who've  gone through a similar situation, I realized I'm not alone. They, too, felt they should've done more, that they let their loved one down.

It's not a good feeling. There are so many things I wish I could go back and change. 

It hurts so much to know how hard Nanny fought all year through Poppy's illness and then her own cancer. It seems unfair. 

"I love her now more than ever"

Nanny and I were so close. She was a huge part of my life and the number one reason I became a nurse at MD Anderson. She was my heart, and she still is. There's a huge chunk missing. But slowly, very slowly, I'm filling that hole with my faith.

It's been nearly four months since Nanny died, and it still hurts like it did the day she was weaned off life sustaining machines and medications. I don't miss her any less. I think about her all the time. I'm fighting tears as I write. I think that I love her now more than ever.   

God bless all of you reading this who are going through this. It isn't an easy road to travel. It's rough. There are bumps and roadblocks, dead ends, detours and uneven surfaces, but we are all human. We cannot be too hard on ourselves or our loved ones. 

Patients and caregivers: Show compassion for each other

Patients and caregivers need to be understanding and compassionate towards each other. After all, you need each other. You spend a lot of time together, and that's bound to lead to disagreements and frustrations.

Remind yourself of what the other is going through, not just what you are going through. Remember that you are needed and that you need your loved one.

radiation treatment_nanny.JPG

3 Comments

Thank you for your words. On Nov. 6th this year,
My dad left us to be in a pain-free world.
He fought this awful disease for 9 yrs. I would
Give anything to see him again - even if for
Just a second. As i read your article - reading
The bell ring part took on a whole new meaning.
I remember the times he was able to do it, was
Strong enough after a cycle, and would get up
To celebrate his ring. He had a ling journey,
One that i wish he would have never needed.
Prayers for our loved ones celebrating up there
Together, and for those of us left to try to make
some sense of this terrible disease.

Hi everyone, I am James Pennington, Mr & Mrs. Pennington's son and April's father. Let's not forget myson, Jason. Tomorrow, Dec 21, I will become 52 years of age. It marks another anniversary... a reminder that this is the first birthday that I will spend on this earth without my mother. Hence, the first Christmas I will spend without my mother. And, as part of the healing and grieving process, I had my mom and dad for so many more years than many. Thank you, Father God for sharing them with all of us for so long. I have heard psychiatric pros say that many compare loss of a loved one to the amputation of a part of their body. A person can heal from that, but they will never be the same. Can we all agree that what makes you weak also makes you strong? I'm still healing. I'm trying to heal for myself and I feel the pain and void of he hearts of my family, my daughter, my sister, my son and nephews - empathy and sympathy. The woman April speaks of exhibited every characteristic God set forth in the bible. In failing health she cared for my father, remained faithful to God and cheerful to all of us. I would love for her to still be here, I miss her o much and quite often visit her and my dad in dreams. I am amazed and wish for myself to go the way that she did - with full grace. She went with a loving and cheerful heart, never complaining unless it was to make the loving staff of MD Anderson laugh... in her decline, pain and suffering, she found a way to care for those that were taking care of her. I cry now. But as April put it, it's bittersweet. Bitter 'cause I miss her and hurt for those who also do. Sweet for so many more reasons that I can list. She lives on through us all. If we were all completely healthy, children, young adults and the elderly, then how could we prosper and experience what it is to love like our Father God. I saw that love and felt it in every aspect... and I still do.

Losing a loved is one of the hardest things I have endured. It does take a while for your heart to mend and to not cry when things remind you of your loved one. I am at the stage now when even anniversary quotes give me fond memories and makes me smile. That time will come for you at some point. In the meantime it will seem like a long road to get there.

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