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One of the top award winners of the CIA Medical 2021 Scholarship honoring healthcare heroes is Janira Campos Cortes, a student studying towards a Master in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Oregon State University.
Janira writes about the team of compassionate medical professionals treating her mother for stage 4 stomach cancer.
She recalls the doctors, nurses, patient navigator and others whose empathy made a difference for her and her family.
CIA Medical is proud to present Janira’s essay on her healthcare heroes.
Janira Campos Cortes’ Essay
Growing up I remember my younger siblings and me going to the doctors when we were sick or for our well child check-ups but rarely did I ever see my mother or father seek out medical services. When either of my parents was sick I remember my mother preparing teas or using home remedies to feel better. As I got older I realized that my parents did not visit the doctor like my siblings and I did because they did not have access to affordable health care. My parents left their homes behind and came to the States at a young age and even as adults were still learning to navigate life in America. My parents always saw trips to the doctor as too expensive, especially since they worked in seasonal agricultural work which did not provide any medical packages or benefits to its workers. Fast forward to when I was 19 years old, doctor visits and days at the hospital became a regular thing for my family.
My mother started experiencing stomach pain that only got worse over time. I remember my mother going back to those teas and home remedies but the pain continued. My mother had heard of an income based clinic and decided to go. After multiple trips to the clinic and trying treatments for stomach ulcers the pain continued to worsen. It wasn’t until I got home from work one day and saw my mother in so much pain that my father and I decided to take her to the emergency room despite her protests to wait and see if she got better on her own.
My family’s first life changing encounter with a healthcare worker occurred the night my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer. I remember my Dad sitting in the waiting room with my youngest sister and I followed my mother into the patient room because my mother did not speak English and the Doctor did not speak Spanish. If I had to describe the doctor who spent that night with us, I would describe her as compassionate. Throughout the whole evening and night she was patient, empathetic and understanding. My mother and I had a million questions and at times it took me a while to translate all of my mother’s questions. The Doctor never rushed us, she never dismissed us, or made us feel like we were exaggerating. Test after test she reassured us that everything was going to be okay. After multiple tests she came back and asked if there was anyone else with us, that is when I said my father was in the waiting room and the doctor had me call him in. At first I did not understand why she could not just tell me what was going on, but now as an adult I understand that the news she had to share was too heavy for me to carry on my own and then have to share with my family.
After my mother’s diagnosis we were referred to Dr. Bud Pierce at Hematology Oncology of Salem. Dr. Pierce and his team showed us empathy and kindness, despite the language barriers. As a person of color, I wondered what it would be like to navigate my mother’s care when I did not see anyone who looked like us. I asked myself if they would understand our family dynamics, our culture, and our values. These concerns disappeared over time as my family built a strong bond to Dr. Pierce and his team. I still have the image in my mind of the nurse who we would visit weekly to clean my mother’s PICC line. She would call my mother’s name with a smile and once we were in the patient room she would say “Mama!” and give my mother a big hug. I will admit that at times I would get a little jealous, “Why does this lady have to hug my mom” I’d think to myself. Yet it was her warmth and smile that put my mother at ease and made the pain a little more bearable.
My mother’s team also included a patient navigator who was my biggest advocate. I was 19 when my mother was diagnosed and I had just begun my second year in college. I was also working full time but quit my job to care for my mother and navigate her treatments because of the language barriers. Our patient navigator listened and understood our financial hardship. It was with her help that I was able to apply to various programs that helped cover the costs of my mother’s chemotherapy, prescriptions and even the cost of transportation for the many visits we had a week. After 6 months my family and I were faced with the decision of hospice. I had no idea that hospice was end of life care. No one in our family had ever been in this position before so this was all new to me and my father. She sat with me in my feelings and helped me come to terms that there was nothing more that could be done and we settled on in-home hospice. My mother had been diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer in May of 2013 and on November 16th, 2013 she passed away at home surrounded by her family.
In my mother’s final visit to the oncology office, her favorite nurse met my mother at the door and they cried together. I remember my mother giving her our address and after my mother passed she had received a handmade scarf in the mail which I still have and treasure. Although it was a tough time for my family and I, Dr. Pierce and his team guided us and supported us all the way until the very end. I do not remember all the names of those who were with us in this journey but having the opportunity to participate in this scholarship reminded me how this caring team of individuals surrounded my mother with love and strength.
Although my mother is no longer here, my academic journey was inspired by her and in a way this healthcare team I described too. It’s a little hard to put into words what I saw, my mother’s health declined quickly and I focused all my energy on her physical health and how we could make her physically feel better or comfortable. If I could have done something different, it would have been to pay more attention to her mental health. I think about how my mother’s team consisted of so many individuals and I think to myself, how can I contribute? Compassion, empathy, warmth and patience are all qualities that made a difference for me and my family and they are qualities I can carry with me into my chosen field of study.
About the Author: Janira Campos Cortes
Janira Campos Cortes graduated from Oregon State University in 2016 with a Bachelor’s of Science from the Human Development and Family Sciences program. Receiving her Bachelor’s degree was a huge milestone in her life and now she is certain she is prepared and qualified to pursue the next step in her career. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree, she began her work in child abuse prevention. Over the course of five years, she has worked alongside families in her community and has seen first-hand the need for equitable mental health services. Janira is currently embarking on an academic journey with the goal of obtaining a Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.
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