Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals

Christmas traditions keep spirits high for cancer survivor

December 23, 2022

Baking and decorating Christmas cookies is a yearly tradition for Bill and Nancy Thompson and their family. With three children, 10 grandchildren and even one great-grandchild, the pair look forward to the holiday season when their house is filled with presents, good food and loved ones. This year’s celebration is extra special for Nancy, because she wasn’t sure if she’d get to spend Christmas in her home in Plattsmouth, Nebraska.

“I found out in May that I had bone marrow cancer, multiple myeloma,” Nancy said. “I had 14 treatments at the Bellevue hospital with shots in my stomach every week for chemotherapy. Then, October 24, I had a big shot of chemo for about two-and-a-half hours that knocked down my whole immune system. On the 25th, I had my new stem cells back in. Then, I was at the Buffett Cancer Center for five weeks.”

Too weak to even open her eyes or speak, Nancy was told by the doctors at Nebraska Medicine that the best place for her to go for recovery was Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals. Her attending physician partnered with Dr. Ruthri Goodwin, a Madonna hospitalist, to provide a seamless transition from acute care to rehabilitation.

“When she first came to us, she had issues with nausea and she also had huge issues with fatigue,” Dr. Goodwin said. “There was, of course understandably, also underlying anxiety because of the difficult diagnosis that she had to endure.”

Even though Nancy felt exhausted from treatments and battled nausea, she still gave it her all in therapy sessions. She set a goal for herself, and wanted to make sure she met it.

“Her first day here, she asked, ‘Will I be able to go home for Christmas? I’m really worried I won’t be able to go home and see my family.’ I told her, ‘Nancy, you will be able to go home for Christmas,’’’ Kayleigh Schmidt, Nancy’s occupational therapist, said.

Schmidt worked closely with both Nancy and her husband of 53 years, Bill, to help her meet her goals. She coordinated with the rest of the interdisciplinary care team to create a customized treatment plan for the Thompsons that included daily physician visits, several hours of therapy each week and cancer education materials for both patients and caregivers.

“With patients with cancer, we really have to take into account and modify our sessions to make sure we can honor where they’re at right now while also pushing them to their highest potential,” Schmidt said.

It’s the holistic approach to patient care that makes Madonna’s CARF-accredited cancer program so unique.

“We’re always trained in medicine to say, ‘Ok, this is the physical ailment and this is what we do medication-wise or this is what we do intervention-wise,’” Dr. Goodwin said. “But, you have to treat the patient as a whole. Yes, I have to pay attention to her physical symptoms and treat them accordingly, but I also have to listen to what else is going on.”

For Nancy, holistic care meant physical and mental health treatment, as well as finding ways to incorporate her strong Christian faith. Dr. Goodwin and Nancy bonded over praying together. She says her connection with God helped push her through the days she wasn’t sure she’d make it.

“I’ve had to lean on Him harder than I ever have before,” Nancy said. “Without God, I wouldn’t have been able to do all of this. Bill has also been such a wonderful help to me and support, because he prays for me and I pray for him,” Nancy said.

Her care team made sure Bill was involved in every aspect of her care, from helping her with transfers into bed to cheering her on during therapy sessions. A strong support system is crucial for patients who have been handed a cancer diagnosis.

“For patients who have been diagnosed with any serious illness, it is a very difficult thing to go through, especially when you’re faced with the challenges of prognosis, of the future, of the present and even reflections of your past,” Dr. Goodwin said. “So, during that, you want support from family and friends, people who are already in your life that you trust and you love.”

While Nancy navigates her cancer journey, Bill is also adjusting to a new normal as her caregiver.

“These last few months have been interesting, and I don’t know that there’s any other word to describe it,” Bill said, tearing up. “It’s exhausting always worrying about if she’s getting better, but to see her work so hard, I’m so proud of her.”

Bill particularly loved getting to watch Nancy utilize Madonna’s new Saebo Rejoyce technology to increase her hand-eye coordination, balance and range of motion. She was able to work on areas that needed improvement while playing different games like target practice, flying an airplane and gardening.

“I added wrist weights to her arms, had her standing and she would maneuver a device to interact with the games on the screen,” Schmidt said.

“It’s also intrinsically motivating, so instead of just standing in the gym, she had something purposeful to work on.”

In between more traditional therapies where Nancy progressed from a wheelchair to walker to a cane, she also made time for her favorite parts of Christmas. She was able to use Madonna’s Independence Square to simulate going to the grocery store and getting all the necessary supplies, then use the adapted therapy kitchen to bake cookies. She also participated in a special holiday-themed Recreational Therapy session to decorate her baking creations.

“It was a challenge, but it was really great to be able to walk around in the kitchen and remember what it’s like at home,” Nancy said. “It was something that connects you to your real home rather than you’re just doing therapy. You’re actually doing something you’re going to want to do when you get home again.”

In anticipation for Nancy’s arrival, her kids flew in to decorate the house, set up a tree and fill the living room with presents. But, the best gift can’t be found under the tree. For Nancy and Bill, it’s the gift of togetherness that means the most this year.

“It just feels great to know she’s coming home,” Bill said. “It doesn’t matter if it was Christmas or the middle of summer. I’m just so glad she’s coming home.”

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