Working as a perianesthesia nurse at CHI Memorial Hospital Hixson, Deb Davis didn't realize she would one day be a patient.
Going in for chemo treatments and struggling through the personal day-to-day following her cancer diagnosis, the Rocky Face resident didn't immediately realize the experience would make her a better nurse.
"I knew what would need to be done to fix this surgically. What I didn't know is what the chemo and radiation does to the body to kill the tumors in preparation for surgery," said Davis, a nurse for the past 25 years. "My background helped me understand the workings of the body, brain and emotional aspect of the disease process. What I didn't know was the spiritual aspect one goes through, not to figure out 'why me,' but 'what do I need to learn from this experience?'"
Now, when she sees the look of intermingled grief and hope in her patients' eyes, she can share her own story, one of daily battles as she fought against stage 4 rectal cancer, but also one of many milestones.
"I relate to my patients in a more intimate way in that those who are coming in for surgery tend to be scared and apprehensive, especially those who are having surgeries for cancer," she said. "I would like to believe I am a more compassionate nurse. I like to listen to my patients' stories, experiences, fears and what they hope to achieve after surgery [and] give them hope to have quality of life with the quantity of life that is left."
At this year's Rump Run, a 5k benefiting the Greater Chattanooga Colon Cancer Foundation, Davis could be found in the survivors' tent, swapping stories of watching "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" to help bring her out of her depression. She told of the goals she'd set for herself following her aggressive treatment — "two or three dishes, shower, dress, let the dogs out," and then, walking to and from the Sonic restaurant a quarter-mile from her daughter's apartment.
Davis also told of the family and friends who supported her, especially her 27-year-old daughter Lindsay, who lives in Austin, Texas, where Davis went to recover following her depression diagnosis; and her 19-year-old son Elijah, who was by her side throughout the rounds and rounds of chemo and the surgery to remove the adenocarcinoma, and ultimately her rectum.
"Receiving a text from my colleagues, children and friends were the great moments during my darkest days," Davis said. "I did not get where I am today without their faith and prayers. I did not do this alone and never did I feel alone.
"It is a journey that encompasses faith, God (whoever and however they worship), support of family, friends, and picking the best team to treat your disease."
Davis could not join the record number of runners racing around Enterprise South Nature Park last month, but she could share the discovery of her love of kayaking following her treatment, and the transformative experience of finding a place of calm amid her own troubled waters and realizing that, like the bats heading off into the dusk above her, she was again ready to stretch her wings.
"My rectum is gone; I have a permanent colostomy. My quality of life is an achievement," said Davis. "I can kayak, I can walk, I can work, I can garden and work in the yard. I can't bungee jump — only because I don't want to."
These days, she has new goals.
"I want to learn to rock climb, kayak better, gain more strength to walk distances, and learn once again the fine art of archery," Davis said.
Eight months and two days after her diagnosis, she returned to work, and she's also working to wrap up the courses for her second master's degree. Come next spring, Davis should be a registered psychiatric nurse practitioner.
Working as a nurse liaison at the Rump Run, Davis also connected with fellow health care representatives from around the region, discussing the importance of colonoscopies and the necessity of being comfortable enough to talk about bowel movements and other symptoms of colon cancer.
"Not only do I desire to see more receive their colonoscopies, I want to see a collaboration with all of our health care facilities and teams working with one purpose: prevention and early screening," she said. "I love life and want others to love it too."
Email Jennifer Bardoner at firstname.lastname@example.org.