The nurse often sifts through memories of patients no longer here. But two in particular unknowingly gave Susan Horn-Cherry what she calls gifts of a lifetime — and motivation for a new book.
There was Chris, a guitarist in his late 30s diagnosed with lung cancer. He confided to Horn-Cherry that he felt unloved and alone in his illness. Later, to his surprise, his three siblings dropped everything and came to Seattle to sit with him through chemotherapy treatments, until the disease took him.
And there was Melyssa, a young mother with metastatic breast cancer. In a chemo bay at a Seattle hospital, Melyssa once anxiously asked Horn-Cherry if her 6-year-old son would be loved after her death. The nurse told her she'd seen Melyssa’s doting family attend her treatments and assured her they would similarly care for her son. The mother’s face visibly relaxed, Horn-Cherry recalls.
“The patients made me look at myself. They made me ask: What message would I leave my two children if I was in their situation? The message was love,” said Horn-Cherry, a registered nurse for 20 years and an oncology nurse for seven. “I decided I would let my children know how much they’re absolutely loved. So I started to write them a letter.
“Then I realized the letter wasn’t just for my children. It was for all of the oncology patients that I take care of. It was about how, when we look at ourselves, we should see the beauty that we are, no matter where we are.”
From that moment, Horn-Cherry’s words flowed not into a private correspondence but short stories about love, forgiveness and the true wealth that lies within people. Those brief tales now fill a soon-to-be-published book, “Grace: The Greatest Treasure in the World.”
“People ask me why I wanted to work with oncology patients. It was because you get to take a journey with them that nobody else gets to take. You see them at their worst and you see them at their best,” said Horn-Cherry. Until January, she was a nurse at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“They made me do a lot of inner reflection,” she said of her patients. “I asked myself: What is my purpose here?”
Written for ages 8 and up, the book tells the story of 16-year-old Grace, who wakes one morning to a voice from a dream instructing her to find “the greatest treasure of all,” then share that bounty with the world.
Grace embarks on a series of imaginative adventures rooted in real lessons Horn-Cherry gained from cancer patients she helped to treat.
For example, Grace encounters a broken chair with a missing foot and torn fabric. When the chair asks Grace what she sees, she scans every inch and replies: “I see a chair that is much loved. Your soft, round arms and soft seat and back comfort the person who sits on your cushions. Even when there is no one to sit in your comfort, you are still beautiful to behold.”
“When I was with the patients,” Horn-Cherry said in an interview, “they didn’t have hair (due to chemo), or they had scars from surgery or tattoos from radiation. The chair was like that. You can see the beauty beyond everything physical.”
As a both a nurse and an author, she aims to “let people know how beautiful they are, just the way they are."
She and Seattle-based illustrator Nancy Gellos agreed that the face of their main character should not be shown on any page so that readers could more easily place themselves in the storyline, Gellos said.
“We were just very in sync with the message here. We feel entrusted with this message. We don’t feel like it’s ours,” said Gellos, who created 36 watercolor illustrations for the book. She also is publishing the novel through her company, ShinShinChez.
As Grace completes her journey, she discovers that the true fortune is love and that this treasure lies within her because there is no other person like her.
“You know, everybody has been through a storm. Everybody has dealt with hesitations about the next steps [after hard times], or they’ve doubted their own abilities. We’ve all been faced with everything that’s in this book,” Gellos said.
“Ultimately, that greater message [is] knowing you can turn to yourself, that if you really look in your heart, life is much gentler on you and everyone else,” Gellos added.
While working in the SCCA blood-draw lab, Horn-Cherry had a reputation for putting people at ease in what can be a tense room of patients awaiting treatments, tests or results.
Instead of simply summoning patients by name to a back room to have vials of blood removed, Horn-Cherry sometimes yelled with playful verve: “Come on down! You’re the next contestant!”
Her happy invites elicited smiles from some usually somber people, excited waves from others.
“It’s not just the medicine we give that’s important in nursing,” she said. “When somebody is in that place of fear, they never will heal. They need to be in that [mental] place where they actually can heal.”
Since January, Horn-Cherry has worked as an apheresis nurse at Bloodworks Northwest. As part of its mission, the Seattle-based center provides donated cord blood for research at Fred Hutch and participates with the Hutch in some clinical trials by providing leukapheresis service (white blood cell separation) for patients participating in those trials. In addition, the facility provides blood for SCCA patients.
“Yes, there’s a technical aspect of nursing. But there is the human-to-human aspect, too, just being totally present with people while they’re in my care,” she said. “ I believe I have a gift for that.”
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Bill Briggs is a former Fred Hutch News Service staff writer. Follow him at @writerdude. Previously, he was a contributing writer for NBCNews.com and TODAY.com, covering breaking news, health and the military. Prior, he was a staff writer for The Denver Post, part of the newspaper's team that earned the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Columbine High School massacre. He has authored two books, including "The Third Miracle: an Ordinary Man, a medical Mystery, and a Trial of Faith."