A special place at Mary Greeley becomes an unexpected second home for a new dad battling cancer.
By Steve Sullivan
Lindsay Peterson tends to her
infant son, Augustus, in the family
space adjacent to her husband
Steve’s hospital room. Mary Greeley
has three Burke Family Suites on
its Oncology floor.
Morning light peeks through the blinds and a young mother awakes. She gets out of bed and goes to the bassinet that holds her infant son, who is just starting to stir. She gently lifts him up, and then mom and baby quietly peer into the next room to check on daddy.
This has been a familiar morning routine for the Peterson family, except for one thing: It doesn’t happen in their home. Instead, it takes place in what has become a second home for them: A family suite on the Oncology unit at Mary Greeley Medical Center.
This is where that baby boy has spent much of the first months of his life. This is where baby and dad are building their bond. It’s a bond made all the more significant because less than a week after the little guy arrived, his dad began a battle with leukemia.
Joy and Sorrow
Steve and Lindsay Peterson were thrilled about becoming parents. Steve, who works for Fareway Stores, has spent the last few years traveling to locations doing training and development. His new job as a meat buyer for the grocery store chain meant less travel, less time away from home.
But in the days before the baby’s birth, Steve hadn’t been feeling well. His tired body ached.
“I had lost my appetite and then on the morning of October 16, pain shot through my body,” Steve remembers. “I felt like I had aged 20 years and I thought, ‘Well that’s what happens when you take a desk job.’”
Health Concerns Grow
Lindsay suspected her husband might just be feeling the stress of a new job and the impending arrival of their first child. Steve saw a chiropractor hoping a session would address his bone pain. It didn’t.
On October 23, Lindsay went into labor and delivered a beautiful, healthy boy who was given the name Augustus. Steve and Lindsay picked the name because it sounded strong.
“I can’t remember a better feeling in my life than holding my child for the first time,” Steve says.
A few days later, Steve experienced a high fever and was “sweating through everything so much that I had to change my clothes more than once.”
Lindsay urged her husband to see Dr. David Carlyle, his primary care physician. Tests raised immediate concern about his white blood cells.
A young, healthy guy, used to little sleep and an on-the-go life, Steve hoped it was just a virus. But then Carlyle sent him to the Bliss Center on the second floor of Mary Greeley’s north addition to meet with Dr. Joseph Merchant. At the elevator, Steve realized that the Bliss Center was the Bliss Cancer Center and that he was going to see an oncologist.
“I remember my heart just plummeting, getting into the elevator with my hands shaking,” says Steve. “I hit redial on my phone to call my sister. I told her, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m at the oncology center.’”
At Bliss, Steve learned that the signs pointed toward leukemia and a bone marrow biopsy would be needed immediately. It was time to tell Lindsay.
“That was the single hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “Eight days after we had a baby, I have to tell my wife that I might have leukemia."
Questions raced through Steve’s mind: “Am I going to get to raise my son?”, “Is this going to kill me right now?”, “What are the chances this is curable?” And, of course: “Why me?”
Leukemia attacks white blood cells, and there are different forms of the disease. Steve’s form is acute lympho-blastic leukemia (ALL).
The diagnosis was “crushing,” says Lindsay. “You just shutdown, that’s the best way to describe it. We had just experienced the best thing in our lives, and then went straight into the worst.”
Amanda Engnell, RN, checks on Steve. Because
they often have lengthy hospital stays, Mary
Greeley staff can develop strong relationships
with cancer patients.
Steve began aggressive treatment at Mary Greeley. He was admitted to a Burke Family Suite on Mary Greeley’s Oncology unit, on the 5th floor of the new patient tower. The unit has three Burke Family Suites, named for the donors that provided funding for them through the Mary Greeley Medical Center Foundation.
A Burke Family Suite features two rooms adjoined by a sliding glass door. One room is the patient’s; the other is for family and other visitors. It has space for a bed, as well as a television, DVD player and a kitchenette. Since oncology patients often have extended stays in the hospital, not to mention repeat stays, a comfortable space for family – where they can go while the patient rests – is important. The structure of a Burke Family Suite also provides the medical care team more space to do their important work for the patient.
“The family suites have allowed patients like Steve and many others the ability to be in the hospital yet maintain a bit of normalcy,” says Sarah Heikens, RN, MSN, OCN, director of Oncology Services. “Family members can sleep, shower, and basically live with their loved one while they are receiving their inpatient cancer treatment. When patients are able to have their loved ones with them, their experience is always better. Patients are less anxious and generally feel better. When they wake up in the middle of the night and know their family is here, it makes those scary times much more tolerable.”
Lindsay remembers being in the Burke Family Suite that first night. Steve was in intense pain, but she and Augustus were with him.
“Through those glass doors I have my wife and my child, and that has kept my attitude positive, and keeping a positive attitude is going to be a big part of getting through this,” says Steve.
Augustus “likes to look at me and he recognizes my voice,” says Steve. “The chance to bond with my son is worth more to me than anything. To get to hold him gives me strength.”
He needs that strength. Steve’s ALL treatment involves two alternating regimens of chemotherapy, as well as chemo injected into his spinal fluid. That regimen goes on for eight months, followed by intensive chemotherapy maintenance for three years.
Steve is “doing very well, but it’s very demanding treatment for him because it’s exhausting,” says Merchant.
The Burke Family Suite plays an important role in his treatment, says Merchant. The chemo is doing the heavy lifting, but having your wife and new baby in the next room is great medicine too.
The suites were “designed as if someone knew this kind of thing was coming,” says Merchant.
Steve “is doing better because we have this room,” says Merchant. “It’s allowed him to feel like he’s being a dad and doing his responsibility of being a father while also being able to take his treatment on time and on schedule.”
“Having patients with us for extended periods of time and for multiple stretches of time allows the oncology staff to become very close to these patients. They and their families begin to feel like our families,” says Amanda Engnell, RN, an oncology nurse who has spent a lot of time with the Petersons. “And it’s great to have a baby around when working. He creates a happy atmosphere, and it’s neat to see a mother and father bond with their newborn.”
The “family” aspect to Steve’s care at Mary Greeley goes beyond the room. Mary Greeley’s Pediatrics unit quickly got a bassinet set up for Augustus, a service provided whenever the Petersons are at the hospital. A massage gift certificate helped Lindsay relieve some stress.
Lindsay’s and Steve’s parents frequently visit from out of town and are provided rooms in the Mary Greeley Guest House on the hospital campus.
When it looked like Steve was going to be in the hospital over Thanksgiving, Mary Greeley’s Dietary team went into action, providing a holiday buffet spread in the family waiting area of the fifth floor.
“We were trying to figure out something to do and asked if Dietary could maybe bring something up,” she says. “Thanksgiving Day came around and they set up the whole lobby—decorations, cloth napkins, the works. It was amazing that we could all sit down
Steve’s treatment will continue for several months. This means more stays in the hospital and more rounds of exhausting chemo. There will be good days. There will be hard days. But no matter the day, Steve knows that his family will be right there … never more than a room away.