The latest science with a human touch: Hollings oncology nurses honored for their work with hospitalized patients

August 11, 2022
a nurse wearing gloves and a blue paper gown sits on a bed alongside a man in a hospital gown and puts her arm over his shoulder
Carrie Moore, R.N., takes a minute with patient Chris Hayden. Patients might spends weeks or months on the cancer inpatient unit, and the nurses build strong relationships with them. Photos by Kristin Lee

High above Courtenay Drive, above the blaring music and tempting smells emanating from nearby food trucks, above the ambulances racing to the Emergency Department, above the cars zipping across the James Island Connector, a quiet stillness reigns on the seventh floor of Ashley River Tower, where the nurses of the HOPE unit compassionately and confidently tend to the most vulnerable patients in the hospital.

HOPE is an acronym – hematologic oncologic protective environment – but it’s also a state of mind. The patients on this floor are too immunocompromised to elbow their way through a hungry lunchtime crowd to one of the food trucks below. They include some of the sickest cancer patients from throughout the state, and they’re here, in the inpatient unit of MUSC Hollings Cancer Center, to be cared for by the expert nursing staff until, hopefully, they can go home.

“Some of the therapies that we provide here, and the care that we provide here, is not only some of the best in the nation, but you can’t get it anywhere in South Carolina, other than this floor. We're experts in what we do, and we provide compassionate care,” said HOPE unit nurse manager Carrie Moore, R.N.

And, she added, “We like to have fun. We like to laugh.”

Laughter on a cancer ward? Of course. The patients here tend to have longer stays – weeks, or even months – and plenty of time for the full range of human emotions. Staff members get to know them well and build meaningful relationships. Those relationships are a big part of what makes Moore and clinical staff leader Sarah Verner, R.N., passionate about oncology nursing.

a group of nurses stands in a hall listening 
Sarah Verner, R.N., left with the other nurses of the HOPE unit during a team meeting. Teamwork is essential to their work, she said. 

“I love oncology. It’s my heart. One of my life mentors is an oncologist, and I was privileged enough to work in her private practice as a medical assistant,” Verner explained. “I got to watch the oncology nurses and the special relationships that they build with the patients, and I thought, ‘I have to do that. I have to go back to nursing, and I have to become an oncology nurse.’ Nursing is my second career, and I could not be happier.”

Moore and Verner’s expertise and compassion have been noted – not just by their colleagues but also by the South Carolina Nurses Foundation. They were each selected this year as recipients of the Palmetto Gold, an honor bestowed on 100 registered nurses from across the state who exemplify excellence in nursing practice and commitment to the profession.

Being honored in this way feels surreal, Verner said.

“I feel like my team should win this award. They’re a great team. And I couldn’t do it without any of them,” she said.

Moore agreed.

“It was such an honor to be nominated for the Palmetto Gold and be among the top 100 nurses in South Carolina. I couldn’t be that without the people that surround me every day. I’m very proud of the team and the support that I have here at MUSC, and I’m proud of the care that I provide and ensure that is happening on this unit,” she said.

“I got to watch the oncology nurses and the special relationships that they build with the patients, and I thought, ‘I have to do that. I have to go back to nursing, and I have to become an oncology nurse.’"

Sarah Verner, R.N.

The unit specializes in bone marrow transplant care and CAR-T-cell therapy care as well as any complications that may arise from leukemia, lymphoma, myeloma or solid tumor cancers. Although most cancer care happens in an outpatient setting, there are times when patients must be hospitalized. Some chemotherapy regimens, for example, require hospitalization because of the side effects. CAR-T-cell therapy, although administered on an outpatient basis, can sometimes cause side effects that require hospitalization. Patients whose white blood cells have been depleted by chemotherapy can’t fight off simple infections and can develop fevers that require hospitalization to prevent them from turning into sepsis.

The 42 beds on the unit remain full, Moore said.

On a recent Wednesday, one of those beds was occupied by Chris Hayden of Round O, a small community in Colleton County. He’d been there a month already and figured it would be a few more weeks before his white blood cell count got back to a level where his doctor would discharge him.

Handwashing, masks and social distancing were in place here long before COVID, due to the patients’ vulnerability to infection.

"We have to protect you, right?” Moore said.

“Yes, ma’am. And you do that with discipline and practice. We don’t go in other patients’ rooms and shoot the breeze, and they don’t come in our room and shoot the breeze,” Hayden replied.

COVID has been especially devastating for immunocompromised patients, Moore said.

“Combating cancer is our mission, and one we have success in, but COVID enters the picture and suddenly that virus can dangerously complicate the treatment plan. To see someone overcoming cancer but be set back by COVID is particularly devastating,” she said. “We can’t forget about the immunosuppressed people who viruses affect so tragically.”

It’s quiet in these hallways. Patients have lots of time to fill. Some read, some watch TV. Exercise equipment facing large windows overlooking the Ashley River gives patients an option to stay active. And the unit coffee station is a good place to meet up with staff, visitors and other patients – from a safe distance, of course.

Hayden walks the floor daily, stopping to chat with those who are able and waving to other patients who aren’t up for a chat.

Hayden, whose background is in electronics and mathematics, applied his analytical mind to understanding his condition and care.

“Learning to speak ‘oncologist’ was pretty quick, especially when you’re confronted with cancer. You’ve got to learn how to ask the right questions to get the right answers,” he said.

“They let me question every pill I get and every shot, every IV. They answer me ‘why,’ which makes the stay here tolerable,” he continued.

a patient sitting up in bed laughs as she holds a small cupcake while nurses gather around and sing happy birthday 
Sue Doebler got a surprise treat and a chorus of 'Happy Birthday' on her birthday, which just happened to coincide with her discharge day.

Down the hall, another patient was getting ready to leave – a nice birthday coincidence for Sue-Ann Doebler. A retired cardiology nurse and nursing instructor, she said it’s interesting to be on the other side of things.

Doebler has been a Hollings patient for four years now, requiring several in-patient stays for chemotherapy. This time around, she was in the hospital for a week. Caring for patients over multiple planned admissions helps to build strong bonds between patients and nurses, Verner said.

Before Doebler left, the staff gathered to serenade her with a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Then they returned to work, bringing hope to each of the other 41 patients.

The nurses of the HOPE Unit