When Rosemary Jensen's feisty 6-year-old son was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, his doctor earned their trust in a way few could. Listen above, or read the transcript below.
ROSEMARY JENSEN: One night I was giving my son Nick a bath. As he turned his head I noticed the lump on him. It kind of felt like swollen glands, but it was big.
First thing the next morning, we were at the doctors. The doctor came in, and then a nun came in. He said, "He has cancer." I just remember falling to the floor crying. You know, he’s 6 years old.
I said, “We need to get him to Boston.”
MELODY CUNNINGHAM: We had gotten a call from the ambulance transport that he was coming.
JENSEN: We took an ambulance and I laid on the stretcher, and then they put him on top of me and belted us in.
CUNNINGHAM: I remember pacing the floor before he arrived.
JENSEN:They opened the doors.
CUNNINGHAM: Took the stretcher out.
JENSEN: I mean to me it felt like there was 100 people standing there. And I remember Melody being there, and I remember her just comforting me as we got off of the ambulance. I didn’t realize who she was or how important she was going to become to me, but I just remember thinking, all right, I’m glad that she’s with me.
Melody was Nick’s oncologist. Nicholas had a hard time adjusting to people, to the doctors. Melody he never did.
CUNNINGHAM: He really didn’t talk a whole lot at first. I think he was just angry and afraid. But he loved practical jokes, and I am more than happy to be the recipient of practical jokes. And so he would put a whoopee cushion in the chair and then of course sit down and [makes sound].
Nick would just roar with laughter, over and over and over, and just swipe the heart right out of your chest.
JENSEN: I’m sure she’s like that with every other patient, but to us, we were the only patients.
CUNNINGHAM: I was Nick’s doctor for two and a half years.
JENSEN: But at that point, she went to a different department. Even though she wasn’t his doctor she was still involved. She’d stop by and check in on us. He loved seeing her.
Three and a half years, he had 23 surgeries. When he said to us, "Mom, am I gonna die?" I didn’t say no. I said, "I don’t know."
Nick was really sick at that point, and Melody came to the house. She lived out in the Worcester area, which is like a two-hour drive from her house to my house. You don’t see doctors doing that.
Nicholas was all about the Army. She had brought down her dad’s Purple Heart, and Nicholas was just like in awe of it.
CUNNINGHAM: I remember bringing the Purple Heart out and talking about what it meant, and that it belonged to my father and that my father wasn’t killed in the war, but that my father died in a car accident when I was actually Nick’s age. He sort of pondered that. And then after I left, I know Rose talked to me about the fact that he seemed sort of uplifted and strengthened. And so although he never said the words and asked about dying, I think in that moment we had that talk about him dying.
JENSEN: His tumor had gotten so large that it started to paralyze him. We were probably on our fifth experimental treatment at this point.
One morning, his breathing was really heavy. His nurse came in, and she said, "Is there anyone you want me to call?" And I said, "I need to call Melody."
CUNNINGHAM: Rose called me.
JENSEN: It was like 5:30 in the morning.
CUNNINGHAM: Absolutely no question in my mind that I was gonna be there.
JENSEN: She came right up to the hospital. It was her day off, she didn’t have to be there, she wasn’t his doctor -- but she was there.
We were laying in the bed pretty much the whole day, and I remember her just holding my ankle. Charlie, my husband, was on one side, I was on the other, and she was behind me. And then she was holding Charlie’s hand. Charlie was like this, this guy, couldn’t show his emotion, and he was crying. She stayed there the whole day. She didn’t move.
CUNNINGHAM: I truly believe that when you can’t cure you can always heal, or try to heal, simply by our presence. And often that presence is a silent presence.
And then, when I felt like they needed it lightened, I would tell stories. We laughed because they were quintessential Nick stories. And then of course we cried.
For many many many hours, 15 or 18 hours, these breaths were continuous. And then they slowed. And then they stopped.
JENSEN: I remember laying in bed with him, and just holding him, and just waiting for that next breath to come. But it didn’t come.
And then I remember hearing Melody say, "He’s gone, Rose." I knew he was gone, I just didn’t want — I didn’t want him to be.
CUNNINGHAM: That reality comes in, I think, like a tsunami.
JENSEN: The funeral parlor came to get him, and she helped me dress him. She walked out with him.
Thirteen years he’s been gone. People forget. You know, they forget about him. The constant communication with Melody helps me remember Nick and brings back all of the joys I had with him.
CUNNINGHAM: I’ve been living down in Memphis for the last nine years.
JENSEN: But we still stayed in touch. Even after all these years later, I’ll be talking to her, and she’ll tell me a funny story I forgot.
He used to Rollerblade around the hospital all the time. Over the loudspeaker we had to be like, "Nicholas Jensen, get back to your room or you’re grounded!" She remembers it all.
CUNNINGHAM: When I care for a family, I’m there for the duration.
Have you ever felt the kindness of a silent presence? Who helps you remember when you can't on your own? We want to hear your stories. Send me a message, find us on Facebook, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks to the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare for telling us about this story. This episode includes music by Tate Peterson, Chris Herb, Podington Bear and Chris Zabriskie (CC BY-NC 4.0).
This segment aired on December 4, 2015.