Thursday June 3, 2004
A friend to the end
ANG SEE RENE talks to an oncology nurse who has seen the best and worst of times.
THE passion that Ann Henrietta Phipps brings to her job as an oncology nurse at the Mount Miriam Hospital in Penang is truly remarkable.
For close to 30 years, she had experienced up close and personal the many battles against the Big C fought by young and old.
There have been tales of courage where hope was renewed. Yet there were also tales of sadness in which bitter disappointment reigned.
Through it all, Phipps was always on the sidelines, a professional and dedicated nurse who was also a friend and radiated hope and love.
“Every story has a starting point and I have always kept in my heart the motivating factor behind my decision to specialise in cancer care,” said the 52-year-old in an interview at the cancer hospital in Fettes Park, Tanjung Bungah.
Clad in her neatly-ironed orange uniform, Phipps recalled her days when she was a second-year nursing student in London.
“I was assigned to a surgical ward in a London hospital in 1974. The corner area nearest the door was occupied by patients closest to death.
“At that particular time, the bed was occupied by an emaciated man propped up on pillows, very breathless, groaning and moaning softly.
“Beside him was an elderly lady, sitting silently wiping away her tears. He was dying from terminal bronchial cancer and I was to make him comfortable,” she says.
Other than the frequent painkillers to be injected, Phipps was not told what else to do.
“I was helpless and nursed him the best I could. I cried when I went off duty to return the next day to carry on until he died a few days later.”
Little did she know that on that day, a seed was sowed in her that was to grow out of this one man’s pain.
“I was determined to learn more about cancer. The field of cancer care then was not as highly developed as it is today. Those were the days of unsophisticated medication and we used what we had and our hands to soothe.”
Phipps eventually learned to be very tough and “I had to quieten my fears, especially when tending to the very extensive and disfiguring wounds.”
“During that time, I began to have the conviction that while it is difficult for the nurse, it is a thousand times more difficult for the patient,” says Phipps.
After completing her training in London in late 1976, the then 24-year-old freshie chanced upon an opening at the Mt Miriam Hospital, which was then a nursing hospital.
“I hurried home to apply, green at the gills but very eager. They rejected my application and I packed my bags to return to London. Four days before my departure, the hospital decided to employ me.”
She recalled the first time she set sight on the hospital, which was started by the Sisters of Franciscan Missionaries of the Divine Motherhood.
“I was coming up the hill and there were no condominiums surrounding it at that time. With lush greenery and the serenity, it had a nice ambience. It was love at first sight.”
In 1979, Mt Miriam installed its first cancer treatment machine to attend to the demands for radical as well as palliative treatment.
Realising there is much more to learn, Phipps went back to London to train at the Royal Marsden Hospital and returned to Penang a year later as an oncology nurse.
Today, after 27 years, Phipps is very much part of Mt Miriam, having served as a pioneer at the non-profit set-up, which was the first to initiate cancer care in Malaysia.
“Throughout my growing years as a nurse, I watched people suffer and die, some very peacefully, some fighting. Some died without pain, some in great pain. Some were accepting, some sullen.
“Some died loving God and some died angry with God. Some wanted the human touch while others just wanted to be left alone. Some wanted me beside them, others turned their face to the wall.
“I have seen so many faces of so many colourful characters, the hundreds of people who have touched my life, taught me more than any textbook could and who have left a legacy of many delightful as well as sad memories.”
Phipps has been around to see many success cases and she speaks with conviction that cancer is not a dead end.
“The importance of early detection and treatment cannot be stressed enough,” she says.
Joy to Phipps is when her patients successfully battle the disease.
She fondly remembers a young teen she had attended to who is now well, disease-free and with a family of her own.
“Then there’s the little boy who broke my heart with his cries every time I had to do his chemotherapy.
“For years after treatment was well over, he refused to even look at me despite coaxing from his mother. It was eight years before he finally shook my hand. Today, he is a happy, healthy adult.”
Being in the field for a long time also meant sad moments of having to say goodbyes to many patients who became more like friends than patients.
“Sometimes words just don’t work. As a nurse, I have to accept that I just need to be human and to accept my own limitations in not having an answer to everything.
“Strange though it may seem, this is often the ground on which those special relationships with patients are born,” she says.
On the perception that those working in a cancer set up have become desensitised to suffering or have grown used to it, she says:
“I believe this to be so untrue. Working in this field of cancer care has made me more mindful of the moment and of the many good things we have but are sometimes taken for granted.”