'We were constantly learning': Judy Campbell reflects on 45 years as a transplant nurse

Colleagues, patients praise long-term follow-up nurse as professional, compassionate and ‘calm to the core’
Transplant nurse Judy Campbell
Fred Hutch transplant nurse Judy Campbell is retiring after 45 years. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

When Judy Campbell moved to Seattle in the spring of 1969, she was a 24-year-old nurse keenly interested in helping high-risk leukemia patients – at least for a little while.

“It was a little scary,” Campbell recalled. “I didn’t come with the intention of staying 45 years. I told my parents I was coming back in six months.”

But Campbell never did return to Martinsburg, Pennsylvania.

Instead, she became one of the founding members of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center nursing staff, whose care soothed thousands and helped fuel the rise of bone marrow transplantation from an experimental therapy to standard treatment for many cancers – and hope for other diseases.

Monday marked Campbell’s last day as a clinical nurse with the center’s Long-Term Follow-Up program. Before she finished cleaning out her part of the shared office – “I’m just a paper hoarder,” she said – Campbell, now 69, reflected on her long career. There’s a party – by invitation only – celebrating her tenure today.

In the beginning, when Campbell was a nurse at Altoona General Hospital and then for three years at the National Institutes of Health, the chance of surviving leukemia was near zero. She recalled caring for patients who were her own age, giving them the most advanced medications, and losing them anyway.

“We were always trying the drugs,” she said.

Bone marrow transplantation was in its infancy, and Campbell was invited to Seattle by Dr. Dean Buckner, who had joined transplant pioneer Dr. E. Donnall Thomas and others at the University of Washington. Thomas, director emeritus of the Fred Hutch Clinical Research Division, would go on an receive the 1990 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his lifesaving work.

Campbell shared a house with two other nurses and worked at Seattle’s Public Health Hospital and Providence Hospital, caring for leukemia patients and their families, before joining the newly formed Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in 1975.

She worked in the animal laboratory for a while, where scientists were testing novel bone marrow transplant techniques. When she worked with people, Campbell said she quickly got used to providing patient care in an environment in which treatments were brand new and constantly changing.

‘We were constantly learning’

“It was very interesting,” she said. “We were educated in all areas of transplantation. We were constantly learning. That was one thing I loved.”

Still, no one on the nursing staff knew then that they were changing the scope of cancer treatment.

“It was pretty exciting, but I don’t think we realized that we were making much progress,” Campbell recalled.

Saundra Aker, a clinical research dietician who worked with Campbell for 38 years, agreed.

“We had no idea. No idea,” said Aker, who retired in 2007. “It was such a pioneering effort. We worked one day at a time to keep the patients alive.”

At Fred Hutch, the nurses were an independent unit, which meant they could break some of the rules that other hospitals had.

“We could do some things that were frowned upon, like letting family members of patients sleep overnight,” Campbell recalled. “When you have dying patients, they need their family members around them.”

From 1969 to 1985, Campbell worked on the inpatient unit, caring for the most seriously ill patients. She never did count how many there were – “It’s a lot,” she said.

It was grueling work and, often, very sad.

“I don’t know that there’s ever a time when there aren’t patients who aren’t doing well,” she said. “The inpatient unit is a difficult place for most nurses. But I loved it.”

The camaraderie of the patients and nurses, bound together at the most difficult times, sustained her, she said.

“It was not all gloom and doom,” she recalled. “When someone was discharged, it was a party atmosphere. We had a family kitchen and the families would take care of the patients – and they’d take care of the nurses.”

In 1985, Campbell moved to outpatient work and cut back to part time to care for her own family. She met her husband, Don Campbell, a watchmaker and former center employee, at Fred Hutch. They have two children, Reggie, 33, and Katie, 31.

Preparing patients for life after transplant

But her career as a long-term follow-up nurse has been rewarding, Campbell said. Her job has been to prepare patients for life after transplant – and to help them with problems when they arise, years, or even decades, later.

For transplant patient Fuller Cowell, 62, of Fairbanks, Alaska, Campbell has been a steadying force since he was diagnosed with two forms of leukemia in 1998. He had an allogeneic transplant with bone marrow supplied by his brother.

“Judy Campbell has just been a stalwart,” Cowell said. “I’ve relapsed three times and she’s been a godsend.”

Campbell is patient, compassionate – and knowledgeable, he said. Whether the issue was relapse, complications from medication or coping with the effects of graft-vs.-host disease, Campbell could help, said Cowell’s wife, Christmas.

“Judy is one of those people who is calm to the core,” she said. “She makes you believe that everything will be OK,” Christmas Cowell said.

That compassion and attention to detail carried over into her dealings with co-workers, said Sally Lundberg, a research nurse at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. She met Campbell when her husband, Keith Lundberg, a key administrator at Virginia Mason Medical Center, was diagnosed with leukemia. He received a transplant but died in 2002 after relapse.

As both a nurse and a colleague, Campbell has been a pro, Sally Lundberg said.

“It’s sad,” she said of Campbell’s retirement. “I think we lose a great historian. She was always very approachable. Always willing to go the extra mile to find answers to a question. She was always smiling.”

Campbell said she looks proudly at the progress of bone marrow and stem cell transplantation, including recent Fred Hutch research that showed overall mortality plummeting by 41 percent during the period from 2003 to 2007 compared to a decade earlier. She said she’s hopeful about the expanded use of transplants for a range of other diseases.

“I didn’t think we’d be trying this for things like multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease,” she said. “I think it’s great if it works.”

Still, she admitted a bit of trepidation on her last day: “It’s strange,” she said.

Campbell said she’s looking forward to sleeping past 5 a.m. and tackling home projects that have been on hold for years.

As a patient, Cowell said he had mixed feelings about Campbell’s departure after 45 years as a clinical care nurse. On one hand, he and Christmas will surely miss her kind oversight.

“On the other hand, she deserves to retire,” he said. “She’s given her life to people like me.”

JoNel Aleccia is a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. From 2008 to 2014, she was a national health reporter for NBC News and msnbc.com. Before that she was a reporter, editor and columnist for more than two decades at newspapers in the Northwest. Reach her at jaleccia@fredhutch.org

Related News

All news
‘I want my life back:’ Trial offers new hope for severe Crohn’s disease Woman travels to Seattle from Norway for novel treatment to reboot a badly damaged immune system October 9, 2014
Beyond blood drives: Stem cell donors help fuel scientific discovery Volunteers for the little-known procedures earn up to $800 – and the chance to contribute to cutting-edge research October 31, 2014
Transplant saves first ‘bubble boy’ in Wash. state detected with newborn screening Early bone-marrow treatment is crucial for patients born without ability to fight infections, multi-center study confirms August 4, 2014

Help Us Eliminate Cancer

Every dollar counts. Please support lifesaving research today.