The Chemotherapy Infusion Center at the Mountain States Tumor Institute in Boise is where the desperately ill come for treatments that can last six hours as cancer-killing medications drip, drip, drip into veins or surgically implant port receptors.
Some prefer to sit up to take their medicine on one of the 24 chairs or beds in the clinic. Others endure in a semi-sleep state.
I understand why the doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals are there to administer the lifesaving drugs. They are trained. It is their job and they carry it out with precision and great empathy.
But who volunteers for this? Who carves out time from their lives several days a week to fetch meals, water and blankets, to hold hands and dispense encouragement as toxic meds seemingly kill you just enough to kill your cancer?
I think they are angels with a calling of compassion, equipped with LED (love every day) smiles that light the way in the dark treatment tunnels where bewildered patients find themselves — sometimes all alone.
I think — no, I know — it is people like Wilma Brassey.
For eight years, until succumbing to a cancer recurrence in September, Wilma embodied what it was to minister comfort in a medical setting. She was among about eight volunteers at the CIC gifted with the instincts to make the best of the challenging journey back to health.
Pilots log flight hours. Angels such as Wilma, a retired administrator at a law office, set goals of logging 3,000 volunteer hours — and are not denied by any circumstance short of death.
If that isn’t remarkable enough, Wilma knew better. The wife of Boise attorney Mike Brassey, Wilma was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007. She knew exactly what went on inside MSTI: the treatment rigors, the survival odds, the chance for miracles and healing. She beat it and forged a path through all the fear and apprehension. She must have left bread crumbs because she led dozens of patients back from their own brinks.
Sue Rhodes admires all of the volunteers she supervises at St. Luke’s MSTI, but she measures them against Wilma.
“She knew what patients wanted, needed, before they did,” said Rhodes, a nurse in the chemo suite. “She was there every week for eight years — Tuesdays and Thursdays at first, and then Mondays and Thursdays. She remembered a patient’s lunch order, preferences. She knew and treated them like family.”
Wilma suffered, dreamed and rejoiced with those she served — until she could no longer. She shared everything — even the grief when one would slip away.
“I could tell when a former patient would show up in the obituaries. Wilma would be sad for days, and then press on,” said Mike Brassey, who was married to this “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful woman” for 33 years.
Among the most difficult losses were people in their youth, such as Joseph “Jack” Cilek, who battled cancer at MSTI and other facilities until his death at age 20 in October 2014. Jack’s father, Jeff Cilek, vice president for external affairs at St. Luke’s, fondly recalls Wilma’s ministry of hope and compassion.
“She was so sweet, she was everything you could ask for — everything that makes MSTI so great,” said Cilek, who informed me of Wilma’s passing a few months back.
I did not want to let 2015 pass without acknowledging Wilma and all the other health care workers and volunteers who infuse hope and mercy with the treatments at MSTI. Full disclosure: I am married to a breast cancer survivor, a MSTI alum who received her last outpatient treatment there about a year ago.
Like the rest, she was at first overcome by the gravity of her health crisis — especially on the first day of treatment at the CIC, where her hands trembled as the IV was inserted. But the gravity of hope that Wilma and Mark and Nurse Denise and all the others we knew only by first names had the stronger pull.
We thank them, salute them — and will never forget them.