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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


From cancer patient to nurse

Rebecca Rillos
Rebecca Rillos / Arizona Daily Wildcat Michelle Thomas, a nursing student, practices taking blood pressure on a dummy patient at the College of Nursing at University Medical Center. *ask Misha for more information*

Michelle Thomas pores over medical notes, her eyes intently switching from book to book as she types. As she shifts on the couch, part of a 5-inch scar peaks out of the back of her camisole just below her left shoulder blade. She grabs a book from her room, walking past the laundry basket where her scrubs are hanging on the side, rumpled after a day in clinical class.

Ten years ago, Michelle was in the University Medical Center as a patient in the pediatric cancer ward. She wanted to be a doctor before she got sick, but on those nights where the chemotherapy treatments made her vomit violently, it was her nurse’s soothing hands on her neck, not the doctor’s.

Elizabeth Kamp, or “”E.B.,”” started working at UMC in 1990, just months after Michelle was born and 10 years before the two would meet.

“”I was her nurse when she was a patient there, and right away I knew she was just this remarkable kid,”” E.B. said.

Many hospitals discourage nurses from getting personally involved with their patients, but E.B. believes, in the cancer pediatrics ward, that’s impossible.

“”E.B. was my favorite nurse,”” Michelle said smiling at the memory. “”At that point I wanted to be a doctor. I went from saying I want to be a doctor to being like, ‘No I want to be like her.'””

Michelle went through two rounds of chemotherapy treatment, lost her hair and 50 pounds. She was already skinny for her age, but now she looked like a skeleton. When her doctors believed she was healed enough, she went through more tests, one of which found a spot on her lung. Doctors performed a thoracotomy, an incision in the side of her chest, to biopsy the lung. What they found was cancer. Michelle had two more rounds of chemotherapy and one round of radiation.

E.B. stayed with her and her family through it all.

“”I always say this: Doctors treat their patients but the nurses heal the patients,”” Michelle said. “”A doctor might come in and say ‘OK sir, this is what’s wrong with you and this is what we’re going to do because this is the best line of treatment for you.’ But the nurse is the one that when the doctor walks out of the room that everyone looks to her, or him, to explain what the doctor just said and to say it’s going to be OK.””

E.B. was part of Michelle’s support group in Tucson but back in Winslow, Ariz., Michelle’s hometown, the entire town rallied around her family during her treatments. They held benefits to raise money to help her family and some donated personal leave days to her father so he could stay with her and make the five-hour drive to UMC every time she became ill.

“”I was that kid with cancer,”” Michelle said about the years after she went into remission. “”But they only remember because everyone in Winslow made such a big deal about helping my family out, so whatever. I can take it.””

The people of Winslow had no doubt that Michelle would get better. People would walk up to her parents, hand them a check and tell them to put it away for college. That fund allowed Michelle to go to the UA for pre-nursing, and even all the way to Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Michelle spent half of her junior year in South Africa. While studying just outside of Cape Town in a small college town, much like Tucson, Michelle was also preparing for her UA College of Nursing interview.

It’s 5 p.m., in four hours the interview will happen. Sitting at her desk, alone, Michelle recorded her practice questions and responses. Stop. Rewind. Play. She listened intently to her responses, analyzing and adding. New question. Record. Stop. Rewind. Play. It’s 8:48 p.m., Michelle is pacing around her room, watching the clock. She’s nervous. What if the Internet cuts out? Turn. What if the number I have isn’t the right one? Turn.

8:59 p.m., Michelle sits down and Skypes into the interview. She’s the first one to call — always the overachiever. As she sits in baggy sweat pants and a sweatshirt, a knot forms in her stomach. One of the interviewers remembers her from before Michelle left, and made plans for the call. Michelle begins to relax. She has an advantage.  

Another girl calls in. She’s in California for her sister’s wedding. Well, South Africa beats that.

Five minutes go by, the third girl hasn’t called in from Tennessee. Bad first impression.

First question: “”How do you plan to handle the rigorous workload of the College of Nursing?””

Um, what? That wasn’t in the practice questions.

“”I bombed that first question,”” Michelle said, laughing. The rest was smooth sailing.

At the end of the interview, Michelle logged off the computer and lay on her bed, drained. “”Oh my God. It’s over. It’s out of my hands. If they accept me, they accept me. If they don’t …”” Michelle thought, staring at the whitewashed ceiling in her South African apartment.

Two weeks later rumors went around that acceptance letters were out. Michelle saw the email from the College of Nursing just as her Internet cut out. Not now! She opened the email. Please see .pdf for admittance information. Loading.


A grainy image appears. Loading.

“”Oh my God I got in!”” Michelle screamed the phrase over and over as she jumped on her bed in those same sweat pants. Her South African boyfriend, Gaston, hopped on the bed and started jumping with her, both yelling and smiling.

The UA College of Nursing accepts 53 students in the spring, and 53 in the fall each year. Out of more than 300 applicants, Michelle was one of 53 who received that .pdf.

“”People wait on waiting lists forever, but there are so many other programs where you can get your nursing degree and come out being a great nurse as well,”” said E.B., who graduated from Pima Community College’s nursing program in 1994.

In Arizona, overall enrollment in nursing colleges has increased each year, with a 137 percent increase since 2001, according to data from the Arizona State Board of Nursing.

Nationally, nursing is the largest health-care profession, with more than four times as many registered nurses as physicians. For future employment, nursing has the largest job growth in the United States.

Now Michelle is studying at the UA College of Nursing. She hopes to work with pediatric cancer patients in UMC, and be the nurse comforting the child who’s throwing up and miserable like she once was.

“”What I’ve noticed so far in my clinical experience, is the nurse is the one who makes the difference in the patient’s life,”” Michelle said.

“”I think she will do well in the profession,”” E.B. said of Michelle’s future in nursing. “”Her history will help, and going through, she’ll have a lot of empathy for patients.””

Every semester, the clinical professor asks her students why they chose nursing. Many in classes were influenced by a particular nurse or had become ill at a young age and spent time in hospitals.

“”It’s hard work. It takes a certain personality to do the job because it is, like I said, physically and emotionally demanding,”” E.B. said. “”But I think the reward of just getting to care for people, making them better, establishing these great friendships that you have, it’s worth it.””

Water runs down and Michelle is washing and cleaning every bit of a patient who has lost the ability to do so herself. Most patients are bathed every other day. There’s a certain smell to them. Not a bad one, just dull sweat. You get used to it. The woman’s red hair glistens. She’s feisty and Latina. Michelle likes her.

The water stops and Michelle and another student help the woman stand so they can dress her. She’s extremely unstable and it takes both of them to keep her upright. This is the first time Michelle has moved a patient.

“”Am I ready to do this? What if she falls? What if?””

She’s back in her wheelchair. Whew.

“”There are moments when you are like — this person is depending on me so if they fall or hurt themselves, it’s my fault,”” Michelle said. “”What ifs are freaky.””

Nurses work in 12-hour shifts, three days a week, and their days are never the same. Oncology nurses, like E.B., begin at 7 a.m. with reports and doling out medicine, and then begin the constant flow of doctors writing new orders, getting lab reports, blood transfusion, chemotherapy and running up and down halls to take care of patients.

As a first-year nursing student, Michelle and her classmates have clinical days where they get to interact with hospital patients.

“”It’s so exciting, because we actually get to do what our profession is,”” Michelle said, describing her favorite part of nursing classes. “”Even the gross stuff, you’re like, ‘Hey do you want to go change a catheter bag?’ and of course no nurse wants to, but as students we’re all excited so we grab a friend and head over.””

As Michelle closes her notes and listens to the sound of the printer print page after page of her 10-page study guide, she checks Facebook and chats with Gaston who’s still studying in Africa. The two have started discussions on where to live after Michelle graduates.  

One of the biggest struggles that the state of Arizona faces is that the students who study and graduate from Arizona face very few job prospects within the state. But nurses who choose to practice in Arizona have ample opportunity to work and make more money hourly and annually than the national average.

For now, Michelle is focusing on passing her next test.

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