December 2, 2021

The power of empathy

Oncology nurse who battled her own cancer honored by hospital

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Kelly Phillips, right, talks with cancer patient Janet Christie

Kelly Phillips has an inside view on the cancer world.

The Cortland woman, 50, a single mom of four grown children, has been in remission from breast cancer for two years. She’s also an oncology nurse at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center, helping treat patients as they battle the disease.

Phillips became certified to work on the hospital’s oncology/hematology unit in February 2016. Two months later, she found out she had breast cancer.

“I understand the fear and anxiety and all the questions you have going through your head. You feel isolated and alone. People surrounding you are not going through it,” Phillips said.

Phillips is looking at her 12th year of nursing this summer at the former Cortland Regional Medical Center, now known as Guthrie Cortland Medical Center.

She was the first recipient of a Daisy Award by the hospital in December. The honor goes to a nurse who exhibits extraordinary care for her patients.

‘Epitome of a nurse’

The Daisy Foundation was established in memory of J. Patrick Barnes by his family. Barnes died in 1999 at 33 from complications of idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, a little-known autoimmune disease. DAISY is an acronym for Diseases Attacking the Immune System.

His family was struck by the care Barnes received from his nurses and wanted to honor them. They established this award, which is given to nurses around the world. Phillips was the first honoree at the Cortland hospital.

“Of course it’s a huge honor and I’m really proud, super proud that anyone would choose me,” she said. “It’s kind of insane. Every nurse that I have worked with, they are here because they want to make a difference. They want to touch a life in a positive way. … I think it could have been any one of these girls.”

Tara Cottrell, a fellow oncology nurse, nominated Phillips. “I think she’s the epitome of a nurse. Patients come first. She’s always willing to go the extra mile.”

Oncology nurses see between 10 and 30 patients a day at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center’s oncology/hematology unit. Five nurses are caring for the patients, who sit in plush power recliners that are heated. There are seven chairs in the chemo room. Cancer patients get their vitals and blood work checked and then settle into the chairs for chemotherapy infusions. The infusions could last an hour, or maybe nine, Phillips said.

“That’s why these chairs are super comfortable,” she said.

‘It can be really scary sometimes’ Oncology nurses do a lot of education about chemotherapy and its side effects.

“If you or I get a cold or sore throat, you would go to the drug store and get something to treat it. But when you are a cancer patient, anything could turn into something else,” Phillips said.

“I feel like a lot of our job is for emotional support. Not only for patients but for family, as well,” she said. “Most people who come here, they were healthy. They’re life was normal. This is a life-altering event that changes everything, the way you look at everything.”

Nurses schedule patients, do vitals and blood work for doctors and the nurse practitioner to assess. They give pre-medication, IV hydration, transfusions of blood or platelets to keep patients well while they are getting the chemotherapy. They access mediports under the skin, which take in medicine to kill cancer.

“We have a kitchen back there. We provide a lot of meals if (patients) are hungry. We have snacks and drinks. We’re kind of like mini-waitresses too.”

Phillips will also take phone calls from patients if they are experiencing symptoms at home: “Do they need to come in? Go to the ER? Can it wait till tomorrow?”

Patients have breast, colon, gastrointestinal, lung cancers, non Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

“It can be really scary sometimes,” Phillips said.

Janet Christie of Cortland has been a chemotherapy patient almost three years. “Time flies when you are having fun,” the 84-year-old said. She usually spends three hours getting her chemotherapy for breast cancer.

“All the nurses here are great,” she said. “I have no complaints. They are very caring. They’re always smiling. I did see one crying one day.”

That happens sometimes, Phillips said.

‘I looked at the screen and I knew’

Phillips has a family history of breast cancer and got checked every six months. Doctors found it in 2016, at the Breast Cancer Center in Syracuse.

“I looked at the screen and I knew. I had seen screens before. It looked entirely different.

She got a port for chemotherapy on a Friday, started chemo on a Wednesday and had a surprise 70th birthday for her dad in between.

“Good times,” she said.

One child was graduating from college, another was in college and the twins were seniors at Cortland High School. On the day of the twins’ prom, she had chunks of hair falling out.

“This is bad timing,” Phillips recalled. And reminded herself: “There is no good timing.”

Phillips had her treatment done at her oncology unit, with her fellow nurses, under the care of the doctor she works with now, Margaret Boufal. She would go to work in the morning and have her chemo during lunch and into the afternoon.

“They pulled me out of work for a couple of weeks,” she said. “Most of the time I was working full-time.”

She worried about losing her hair, until it fell out: “And then I felt way better.”

‘I want to be the same’

“We are so focused on our appearance as a society. Losing your hair becomes the main focus. I didn’t think I was going to die. I was going to be bald. I am going to be sick. This is going to be hard.”

She gave up the wig and learned to wear scarves. Now she helps other women feel good about their appearance.

Phillips finished chemotherapy in five months. After a five-week wait, she had a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction.

“Even though I feel good, happy and proud to be on the other side, I am not the same me before cancer,” she said. “I feel I am changed and I want to be the same.”

But the experience has made her a better nurse. And a better advocate for the patient, she said.

“Every time I get to meet a new person, whether when they’re finding out, newly diagnosed or coming to the chemo room for the first time, it’s an opportunity to let them know they are not alone.”