Shirley Larson sits patiently in her wheelchair.
“Ok, Shirley, reach up there and ring the bell,” she is told.
Shirley looks around the room and smiles. The day has finally come. She reaches for the green cord and pulls it while people around her ring small, handheld bells. She covers her ears and grins from ear to ear.
Friends and family cheer as they pull out their phones to capture perfect photo. Shirley’s cancer treatment has come to an end and today is graduation day.
Nurses and therapists approach Shirley and congratulate her on the completion of her treatment and exchange hugs. She sees one therapist out of the corner of her eye and motions for him to join her for a photo.
For the North Arkansas Regional Medical Center’s Claude Parrish Cancer Center staff, it is more than a job. Cancer treatment can be overwhelming and daunting, but the cancer center staff strives to be a light in a dark time in the patients’ lives. For them, it is all about offering hope.
“When you walk into this place, you feel an overwhelming sense of hope,” Shannon Hilliard, Chief Radiation Therapist, said.
The therapists, nurses, doctors and staff all work together to ensure that the cancer center has a positive environment, one that patients want to come back to.
“We want them to feel like they are here to talk to a good friend, not to receive treatment,” Priscilla Collier, LPN, said. “If we make coming here fun, they will actually miss being here and look forward to coming back.”
For some of the staff, past experiences play a role in why they chose to work with cancer patients.
Cancer Center Director, Jon Burnside, practically grew up in doctors’ offices. His mother was diagnosed with cancer when he was eight-years-old. At the time, she was given six months to live. She fought cancer with her family by her side for 11 years. When Jon was 19-years-old, his mother passed away.
For Jon, working with patients is all about balancing honesty and compassion.
“It is a common misconception that this clinic is filled with doom and gloom, but we actually laugh more than we cry,” Burnside said.
NARMC staff take the time to see beyond the patient’s diagnosis. The team describes their patients as fierce and fascinating. Knowing that each one has a different story and personality, the staff connects to each patient differently.
One nurse has baked birthday cakes and cooked meals for her patients. One therapist purchased new shoes for a patient after noticing that patient’s shoes were held together with duct tape. Several staff members helped provide a meal for another patient and their family.
For Michelle Riggs, RN, it is about providing a helping hand, much like the one her dad received when he underwent cancer treatment. He passed away when she was 18-years-old after battling leukemia.
“I have a passion for our patients,” Riggs said. “They are so sweet and appreciative.”
Like the rest of the cancer center team, it is all about the patients for Dr. Ali Abdelaal, Oncologist.
“My patients keep me going,” Dr. Abdelaal said. He recalls a woman walking up to him in Hudson’s Supermarket and starting to dance. The woman went on to tell him that she is alive and healthy, 15 years after he treated her for cancer. The close-knit community allows the staff to keep up with their patients even years after treatment.
Most patients are treated for two to eight weeks at a time. During that time, many patients form a close bond with the staff. One team member was taught to knit by a patient. One patient knew that a therapist was an avid hunter and outdoorsman, so he allowed him to hunt at his farm. That is where the staff member taught his son to hunt.
The staff not only walk through treatment and hard times with their patients, but they also celebrate milestones. New in 2017, when a patient finishes treatment, they ring a bell. The bell used to ring in a Searcy County schoolhouse, but now it signifies the end of an era and the start of something new.
“We really try to celebrate their last day of treatment,” Burnside said. “It truly is an accomplishment.”
NARMC sits in a rural community where staff members treat neighbors and friends. Claude Parrish Cancer Center strives to be a place of hope and healing. Instead of having to drive hours away for treatment, patients are able to receive top-notch care here at home. For some patients, the team at the cancer center are the last healthcare professionals they will meet. It is common for team members to go out of their way to brighten someone’s day or lend a helping hand. The bonds formed between patient and the staff literally last a lifetime.