by Cheri Bianchini
My nursing career began at Stanford University Hospital in 1978 as a new graduate. I remained working in the surgical ICU for eight years, thoroughly immersed in the hospital culture, learning and growing at an exponential rate. In 1986, bittersweet as it was, I left Stanford to pursue a health related business of my own. Nine years later Stanford Hospital once again became my second home. My dear husband was diagnosed with terminal Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the only glimmer of hope was performing a bone marrow transplant.
It’s difficult to adequately articulate what it was like to be at the hospital, seeing it through the eyes of the patient rather than employed there as a nurse. Ignorance truly can be bliss. I wish I didn’t know so much about stage 4 metastatic disease, especially when our four-year-old asked if Daddy would die. The only comfort was being there among old friends, surrounded by the walls I knew so well, but the grief, sadness, fear, uncertainty and suddenness of the situation—watching my strapping husband wither away in just a few months—was shocking and surely the greatest pain I had ever experienced.
One evening, after weeks of sleeping on a flimsy little cot down on the Bone Marrow Transplant unit, I met a dietary employee in the cafeteria whom I hadn’t known before. His name was Curtis Dance. I was moving unconsciously through the food line with tray in hand just going through the motions. Surely I was looking forlorn and not at all present in my body, a common state for those facing a life threatening illness. Curtis first spoke to me from behind a pyramid of cantaloupe that he was arranging. He said, “I’ve seen you around here a lot lately. How are you doing? Is someone you love ill?” This stranger’s acknowledgement and concern for me instantly touched my heart and brought me back to the present moment.
I told him about my husband. Gently, he touched my hand and said, “Just pray.” I began to cry and told him I didn’t know how to pray, or that my prayers were not being heard. Right there in the cafeteria, separated only by the fruit slices he had arranged, Curtis Dance and I exchanged communion. He patted my hand, saying, “Would you like me to show you how to pray?” He came around from behind the food station and sat next to me at a quiet table. There he suggested I imagine myself sitting on a bench with God seated right next to me and to just… “Start talking.” The love, warmth, and encouragement that exuded from this angel in disguise were intense and profound for me. Those brief minutes spent with Curtis were better than a year of church services. His eyes told of hope and belief.
Every time I saw his adorable little face on return visits to the cafeteria, he gave me a reassuring wink and a thumbs-up gesture as continued support. I will be forever grateful to this man, who put his tray of fruit down to help out a fellow human being in a moment of need.
My dear husband Jerry died in my arms in December of 1995. We held his funeral service at Stanford Memorial Church, the same site in which we had been married 14 years before. The pain of life without him was immense but seeing our little girl, who looks just like her Daddy, I have to smile. Fortunately I had that beautiful daughter for comfort because the heartache of loss continued.
Shortly after Jerry’s passing, both his parents and my father died. My dog of 20 years and my 18-year-old cat also departed. I grieved for them no differently than I would a family member. During this 4-year period, both my Godparents, with whom I spent a lot of time, passed away. I cared for my mom while she suffered the ravages of terminal breast cancer. It took a major toll on my heart and I will always miss her. I felt like “Chicken Little” with the sky falling, so overwhelmed with grief.
Believe it or not my brushes with death continued. Not once but on two separate occasions as I was driving down the winding mountain road on which I live, I came upon car accidents that proved fatal. In both cases, I held the men’s hands as they took their last breath.
Why do I tell you these tales of woe? Because, if it were not for Curtis Dance and his primer on how to pray, I’m not sure I would have endured this period of my life. Curtis would be proud of me. I don’t simply have chats with God, as he had once taught me; we have whole discussions and dialogues that span weeks on end.
I subscribe to no particular organized religion and don’t follow a set doctrine. The simple act of speaking to a higher power in conversation form has proven beneficial to me. I have grown in my spiritual belief so devoutly and live with much grace in my life. I have nursed the sick and been in attendance at the deaths of many people. Prayer has always been an important ingredient in those moments. I will forever remain appreciative of Curtis Dance for his compassion and wisdom.
One never knows the number of lives that are influenced by a single action.
Life doesn’t always introduce us to the people we want to meet. Sometimes, life puts us in touch with the people we need to meet. Thank you Curtis for the love.