Rewards of a caring career

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance awardees embody the spirit of Steinberg scholarships
Susan Gordon and Jon Smith
Seattle Cancer Care Alliance nurses Susan Gordon and Jon Smith are among the recipients of this year's Steinberg "Excellence in Oncology Nursing" scholarships. The annual award comes from generous contributions from the Howard Steinberg family and friends. Photo by Dean Forbes

Seattle Cancer Care Alliance nurses Susan Gordon and Jon Smith are eminently qualified and deserving recipients of the annual Steinberg "Excellence in Oncology Nursing" scholarships, according to the peers who nominated them. However, both would rather avoid the spotlight. Not only because they're modest, but they find it difficult to talk about what they do for a living.

"It's usually a conversation-stopper at cocktail parties," said Smith, a general-oncology nurse, of his 27-year career working with cancer patients. "People take the opportunity to change the subject or refresh their drinks. Society doesn't like to consider death as a possibility."

"However, in a clinical setting, we see that the possibility of death is natural," he said. "We all experience it, and personally, I consider it a gift to experience it with patients. I don't find it depressing, though I do feel sad when a patient dies because sometimes it's like losing a family member."

Gordon agrees. "I've learned not to put off vacation trips or other experiences that are important to me and my loved ones. I look at my husband and think about how glad I am that he's here. These patients I've worked with have so enriched my life. Because from them I've learned that death is a part of life."

For Gordon, a 19-year nursing professional who works in Infusion Services, it's the interaction with patients — and honing her ability to comfort them — that makes the job rewarding. "Sometimes it's easy to tell I've made a difference — if they leave the clinic feeling better than when they came in," she said. "If I can ease the pain of a patient, I feel some measure of fulfillment, whether or not that patient is able to express gratitude."

Smith, whose work experience includes inpatient care, said he learned early in his career that he should live life to the fullest by continually seeking new experiences. "I'm a firm believer that you can't ever stop learning, or you get old and life loses excitement. That old-style way of learning, where you're an apprentice of one thing, then another — that's how I approach life.

"That's how I run into commonalities with my patients," he said. "For example, when I was in nursing school I drove a combine to earn extra money. Once in awhile I'll have a patient who's a farmer, so my being able to talk about combines comes in handy and can help put someone at ease."

The SCCA awards the annual nursing scholarships every May based on recommendations from colleagues. The scholarships are made possible by generous contributions from Howard Steinberg, and other family and friends, in memory of his father Harold and brother John. John received two marrow transplants at the Center before his death in 1994. Harold had multiple myeloma and died in 1981.

Steinberg awardees each receive $2,000 for continuing nursing education, such as conferences, workshops and tuition.

Smith, who serves with several professional-practice associations in oncology and as a clinical specialist for Nexcura, a Web-based patient education site, said he'd like to use his award to learn more about helping melanoma patients. Gordon, who in the 1990s worked in the Center's Inpatient Bone Marrow Transplant unit, wants to use her award to update and broaden her knowledge of many forms of cancer.

Additional recipients of the 2007 nursing scholarships include Courtney Arnold and Rachael Crickman (University of Washington Medical Center) and Amy Jones and Zoe Sonoda (Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center). A dessert reception on May 21 at Pelton Auditorium honored this year's winners.

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