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Sierra Garza hugging her son, Haistin Sky.

One day at a time CTRC lifts spirits, nurtures patients

August 2011

by Elizabeth Allen

Itís 8 a.m., and the phone is quiet for now. Mary Jackson burrows into the annual "Surviving & Thriving" conference for cancer survivors.

She handles typical conference details: booking a site, planning activities and choosing speakers. But her job does not end there: She must anticipate the needs of patients with a range of cancers at various stages of illness and recovery.

"Some people who come to the conference are pretty sick," said Jackson, director of Patient & Family Services at the UT Health Science Centerís Cancer Therapy & Research Center. "So there are a lot of little details you have to think about."

That is what Patient & Family Services is all about: helping cancer patients and caregivers with nonmedical aspects of illness, whether by offering practical guidance or boosting spirits.

"There are so many things that go on in a cancer patientís life, and every cancer patient is unique," Jackson said. "Patient & Family Services helps them get through all those complications and beyond."

"Surviving & Thriving" illustrates the officeís vital, and intensely personal, mission - cultivating strong bonds of mutual support among patients. Because that support is so important, Jackson seeks out funds to cover those who cannot afford to attend: "I try to take everybody."

Personal touch

Outside Jacksonís door, things are getting busy.

Upstairs in Radiation Oncology, 22-month-old Haistin Sky Garza wakes up after a leukemia treatment. Itís 8:30 a.m. His mother, Sierra, sits beside him with a clipboard, listing his favorite things. Lupita Martinez, the Patient & Family Services social worker, will send the list to the nonprofit Songs of Love Foundation, which creates personalized songs for seriously ill children.

The toddler opens his eyes and looks around in confusion. His mother enfolds him in her arms and returns to her list, which makes her laugh.

"He likes R&B ó he does the fist pump," Garza said, mimicking the boy, who watched her with a smile spreading over his face.

"Write that down!" Martinez said.

In the Patient & Family Services office, phone calls are coming faster. Secretary Irma Contreras routes calls to the appropriate section: transportation services, nutrition, counseling, food pantry or social services. She may schedule an appointment with psychotherapist Tyler Burnett or ask Martinez to straighten out a Medicaid problem.


Herminia Cervantes gets curbside service from CTRC driver George Longoria.
Patient Herminia Cervantes gets curbside service from CTRC driver George Longoria.

Logging miles, delivering hope

Outside the building at 9 a.m., George Longoria starts the CTRCís 1999 Ford Escort, going to pick up a patient who cannot drive to radiation treatment.

The odometer reads 116,996 - and has turned over once already. The other vehicle, a van, has more than 400,000 miles. The two drivers, who also help with deliveries and valet parking, logged 80,000 last year. All those miles put them in close touch with patients.

"You get attached to them," Longoria said. "I treat my patients just like my parents."

Herminia Cervantes is ready when Longoria reaches her house. She is receiving six weeks of daily radiation for a brain tumor, and the mid-morning trips are difficult for her family.

When family members do accompany a patient to the CTRC, they find resources for themselves as well, including counseling, massage and art therapy.

Romana Gutierrez making a pink beaded bracelet
Romana Gutierrez channels nervous energy into making a pink beaded bracelet as she waits for her brother, Reynaldo Alvarado, to receive chemotherapy treatment.

Art of healing

In the chemotherapy room, Romana Gutierrez channels nervous energy into making a pink beaded bracelet as she waits for her brother, Reynaldo Alvarado, to receive treatment.

"Heís tranquil. Iím nervous. I need something to do," Gutierrez said. "When I do this, I donít think about anything else but putting the beads on."

Artist-in-residence Katherine Brown visits the CTRC twice a week, armed with supplies for everything from beading to watercolor. She is funded through a one-year grant from the LIVESTRONG Foundation.

"When people focus on the art, theyíre not focused on their own pain," Brown said. "It takes their mind off of being ill and puts them in a more positive mood."

Brown understands how wearying the fight against cancer can be: She was treated at the CTRC.

"When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor, my children were just petrified. I remember my son telling me, "Mom, Iíll give you my money to help you,í" Brown said. "I said, ĎHoney, I donít need your money. Just draw me something.í He picked a sculpture to draw that I treasure. And it helped him to go to his own zone."


Curative cooking

Patients and caregivers wrestle with changing dietary requirements: Chemotherapy patients may struggle with nausea, or an esophageal cancer patient may be limited to a liquid diet. Patient & Family Services registered dietitian Jenny Guerra meets one-on-one to discuss individual needs and holds free group demonstrations focused on healthy, simple cooking for the family.

Said Guerra: "Sometimes, when people come in, they have no idea what their options are."


Comfort over a cure

Meanwhile, Lupita Martinez, the social worker, prepares to meet with a patient and family about hospice. Doctors call her if they have done everything possible to heal a patient and itís time to focus on comfort over a cure.

First, doctors walk through possible treatments and explain that there is nothing else to do. Then Martinez discusses options with the patient and family.

"We tell them about comfort measures we can offer at home," said Martinez, who worked in hospice before coming to the CTRC. "We let them know theyíre not going to be alone."

She does not hesitate to reach out to families during challenging times: "This is something we can do to help. You just have to remember going in, we have done this before - but this is the first time theyíre hearing it."

For information about Patient & Family Services, call 210-450-5570.



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