Chona Dick has lived here in Vanderhoof since she was seven and in that time she has worked as a nurse and has helped build Vanderhoof’s Cancer treatment facilities from the ground up.
“The idea was to bring the same kind of cancer care you could get in Vancouver or anything like that closer to home,” said Dick. “They opened up a few clinics along the way and now there’s nine new clinics for Northern Health.”
Vanderhoof’s oncology ward is set up by Northern Health to be nearly exactly the same as the others in Quesnel, Smithers, Terrace, Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Haida Gwaii, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek.
The facilities in Vanderhoof have about 30 people who receive chemo on a regular basis at the moment. When the patients need palliative care the ward will also follow up on them.
The official start date for the oncology ward was in March of 2008, it has been going strong for six years.
Dick was instrumental in the formation of the ward along with Dr. Douglas who spearheaded the proposal. She even painted the walls herself along with some of her friends and family. She started work in 2007 just to get things rolling here.
Nearly everything in oncology was paid for through the donation of one man.
“Henry VanAndel, an older gentleman from town, donated $200,000 to get us started,” said Dick. “All the furniture, all the equipment, everything in there we bought from that money. The only thing Northern Health paid for was the computers.”
The oncology rooms are some of the most pleasant and most like home rooms in the hospital. The chairs are leather and the room has a warm comfortable feeling a lot of the regular hospital things are camouflaged which is perfect for people that might spend three to six hours sitting there.
The room can only fit up to four patients at a time. It can make it a bit difficult to schedule but the staff works hard to accommodate everyone.
Dick said that she was a little scared when they first got started, that her and her co-worker just sat beside their first patient and stared as the chemotherapy started. But she had seen how Smithers ran their program and she took an eight month course online.
“We knew we didn’t have any other support,” she said. “So we wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing.”
Five people work in the oncology department, three doctors a nurse and Chona Dick.
Working in this position brings people to put a lot of trust in health care professionals like Dick.
“I know so many people because I’ve lived here so long and working in Fort St. James and Fraser Lake and having family in Burns Lake I just seem to know almost everybody that comes in. I think it’s really good, they feel comfortable right away and it seems to make it easier.”
“One lady even said that as soon as she knew it was Chona she was so glad, and I didn’t even know her,” Dick said.
But how does Chona do it? How can she not be burned out after six years?
“I never thought about the job until last year. We had a tea and invited everyone who donated and various support groups and patients and everything so I thought that I had to come up with something to say.
Everyone asks me all the time, ‘how can you do this Chona? how can you do this all the time?’ For six years now and I don’t even feel burnt out yet.
I decided that it was because the patients are so cool, to be honest. They’re fighting for their life, their life is completely upside down, suddenly you’re going from working and maybe kids and busy and all of a sudden you get the cancer diagnosis and now it’s about doctor’s appointments, CAT scans, blood work. It’s just so upsetting and they’re so strong and resilient and even if they’re upset they come in here and they’re gracious and thankful and happy and we have fun in here. There’s no doom and gloom, even if they’re having a rough go we just sit them and we can get through it.
What I said at the tea was, everyone asks me if I’m tough you know, I must be tough. But I just said it’s my patients that are tough and that gives me strength. I think they’re doing ok so why am I falling apart? It’s something that I didn’t realize at first and now I realize that that’s what it is. They’re just really awesome people.
Out there you’re so busy and we get busy in here too. You see them so often with only my and the part time nurse and they see me a lot. It’s that consistency, if they’re upset I’ll talk with them or if they get admitted to the floor then I’ll go visit them just to see how they’re doing.
You just have more time to get to know them personally. And I’m pretty open, they know about my kids, they know if I have a hockey tournament this weekend and they’ll ask me ‘Chona how did they do at the hockey tournament?’”
Chona said that she used to think that there was no way that she could go through with the treatments if she was given a terminal diagnosis. She said she used to think that she would just sell everything and fly around the world.
“Now that I’ve seen people go through it, I’ve only had one person do that,” she said. “People can be callous and ask why are we giving all these drugs to this guy, he’s 75 years old! And it’s because they want it and they can. And you know, sometimes they rally and they do well and they get that extra birthday or holiday with their grandkids. The chemo isn’t as bad as it used to be.”
But Dick doesn’t want to take all the credit for herself, there a few people who she said she couldn’t have done it without.
Dick mentioned nurse Mary Sommerville who worked with her from the beginnning. Sommerville has training with computers and she helped set up the scheduling, recall lists and chart forms for the patients. She also helped Chona Dick paint and set up the oncology rooms.
“The last thing is that I never want to leave out the ongoing and incredible support we get from not only Vanderhoof, but Fort Fraser, Fraser Lake, Ft. St. James, and Burns Lake. We have handmade quilts, toques, scarves, shawls, bean bags that are donated on a regular basis. We get monetary support every year from the golfers association, local businesses, Vanderhoof Kinettes and the Rose Bowl sends a fresh bouquet of flowers every single week for free to our clinic for the patient’s enjoyment. Cindy Chipchase offers free Reiki to any cancer patients.”