Kim Russell, who lives in Cold Spring, has been an oncology nurse at Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie for 20 years.
This was your first job after you studied nursing at Dutchess Community College. What stands out from that time?
I remember how scary it was, the fear of not making it. And how hard it was, how stressful, having three kids, going through a divorce and working full time while going to school. But I remember seeing the nurses working and thinking, “I can’t wait to be able to do that.” At the end of the DCC program, I did a six-week preceptorship in the oncology care unit. I loved it. I had thought about working in the operating room because I had worked in the OR at Butterfield Hospital [in Cold Spring] in housekeeping. I was absent the day graduates chose what floor they wanted to work on, so I was assigned to oncology. I felt it was meant to be.
Do you remember your first cancer patient?
It was a young girl with cervical cancer. She passed away on the last day of my preceptorship, graduation day. It was the first time I experienced the death of a patient. I was so upset I left my stethoscope behind. I went to graduation and then the candlelight ceremony, attended only by nurses. A nurse I worked with that day brought me my stethoscope. We’ve been friends ever since.
What motivates you?
Almost every family says they don’t know how we do this work. It’s hard to explain, but it is so rewarding. I’m open with my patients; I have a cancer history and I’ll discuss what I went through. When patients are at their most vulnerable, weakest point, and their families are in the same boat, we can give them strength. We can talk to doctors for them, stand up for them. We can answer questions; we can teach them, support them. That’s what’s so great about this job.
What was it like to work through the pandemic?
COVID was hard, watching so many patients die in the beginning because they were in a weakened state. When it first hit, we knew nothing. One day we were talking about it; the next day it was here. Initially, I was one of those who thought it was being exaggerated, that it wasn’t going to be what they were saying. Later, I lost friends on Facebook who thought it was a hoax. I wished I could have shown them what I saw. The number of COVID patients basically shut our hospital down. After being sent to work in the COVID unit, we did an eight-hour class to learn about the ventilators. One intensive-care nurse would oversee three of us. There were not many good outcomes. Everyone was so sick. It was just watching suffering, watching death. It was devastating, to go to work crying every day, come home crying every day, to stand outside my house in the cold and rain, take my hospital clothes off and go right into the shower. It was awful.
How do you deal with the stress?
I try not to take it home with me; I relax and enjoy my dogs and my kids. It’s been a good day if I made someone smile, eased someone’s pain or even did something little, like getting someone a cup of coffee from the cafeteria, or an Italian ice for a patient who can only have clear liquids. The nurses I work with are a wonderful support. A lot of us have been on the same floor for many years; one nurse just celebrated 42 years. We decompress together. We also have chaplains who come to meet with us. My work has made me appreciate so much of my life. I don’t let the little things bother me.