2010 Healthcare Heroes: NURSE OF THE YEAR

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Maria Wasko, Yale-New Haven Hospital

A Provider of Care, and of Hope

YNHH’s Wasko helps cancer patients get better — and keep the faith

By Melissa Nicefaro

A registered nurse at Yale-New Haven Hospital’s Multispecialty Treatment Center, Maria Wasko always knew she wanted to be a nurse. Her 27-year-long dream took a brief detour while she was in college and a guidance counselor told her she wasn’t cut out for the job.

“I was taken off the [nursing] path, told by one of my guidance counselors that I did not have what it took to be a nurse, so I was going to pursue a career in child care” instead, she recounts.

At the time she was in her junior year of college at what is now Naugatuck Valley Community College. Child care was a promising vocation as more and more women were returning to work and there was a growing need for caregivers.

But still her chosen profession beckoned. “In my senior year, I knew I wanted to be a nurse and that was my bottom line,” she says. “I wasn’t going to do anything but that.”

Today, Maria Wasko is not just any nurse. Last spring she became the first-ever winner of the Smilow Cancer Hospital award to commemorate National Oncology Nursing Month. The award honors one nurse who demonstrates ideal clinical practice contributions in the care of patients with cancer. She was nominated both by fellow staff members and her patients, whom she describes as her “extended family.”

Today Wasko works with unflinching devotion to her patients. Because of her experience with cancer patients, she knows intuitively how to care for them. She has worked as an oncology nurse for almost 25 years. Before joining YNHH two years ago, she worked in private practice and at Waterbury Hospital.

Her first job was at Griffin Hospital in Derby, working in the post-surgical intensive care unit.

“We did everything, soup to nuts,” she recalls. “There weren’t specific nurses for specific illnesses then. We all did it all. In a few short years, I got quite a bit of experience at that job.”

She went for a job interview at Waterbury Hospital, where the nurse recruiter asked if Wasko would be willing to do something “different.” Never one to shy away from a challenge, Wasko told the interviewer to use her in whatever position was needed. Wasko accepted a position in the outpatient oncology department.

“That was in 1986 and that introduced me to oncology,” she says. Today Wasko works with research protocols at Smilow Cancer Hospital. Her department treats patients with solid tumors and cancers of the skin, gastro-intestinal organs, pancreas, brain, lung and other types that don’t involve breast, ovarian and uterine cancer (those are treated at hospital’s Women’s Center). Leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma are considered “liquid” cancers (or cancers of the blood) and are treated within the hospital’s Hematology Program.

There are always new research protocols being developed, Wasko explains.

“There are protocols where patients are put on certain pills,” she says. “With that comes a lot of blood drawing and pharmakinetic research, so the patient has to be here from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. so that we can keep a close eye on how they are responding. We have protocols that do have IV medication administered, and during those treatments there is a lot of checking of vital signs and blood drawing. This helps them see peak times of the medication in the system.”

The research protocols for which Wasko’s work has been cited include an alternative to harsher treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy. She calls the changes she’s seen in oncology over the past 25 years “phenomenal.”

“Many people do very well on the standard therapies,” she says. “There are criteria that the person has to meet to be placed on these protocols. Sometimes they have to have failed certain standard therapies before they can become considered for a certain [newer] protocol. Sometimes they may not have been given any standard therapy before they go on this protocol.”

“It’s exciting,” Wasko says. “It’s equally exciting when you see someone doing so well on a particular research protocol.”

During her career Wasko has seen many changes in oncology, from treatments options to support medications that help patients tolerate chemotherapy. One thing that has remained constant, however, is her patients.

She admits that working with cancer patients can be challenging.

“At some points I do get very attached emotionally to a patient, and that is difficult,” she says. “I have met some of the most amazing people. Their spirit, their courage and their strength are simply amazing. It’s sad to see them going through this — but for whatever reason, they are. I wish I could wave a magic wand, but I can’t. We are making great strides in helping people and giving them so much more quality of life — that has been extended considerably.”

“Most come in scared, scared for this moment, scared for the future, scared for their families,” says Wasko. “I make sure they know that even though they have cancer, it does not mean they have changed as a person. They are still a very special person on this earth.”

Like many nurses working with oncology patients, Wasko is more than a nurse to her patients; she functions as an supplemental support system. Even if she knows some of her patients only for a short period, she does allow herself to become emotionally attached to both patients and their families. “Relating emotionally to patients helps them keep faith in themselves and gives them hope,” Wasko says.

Wasko knows that being a nurse involves more than providing the treatment at the moment. “No matter what is going on everyone needs a smile to lift them up,” she says. “Sometimes simple things can make their day, like getting them an extra blanket or snack. In the end, the simple things sometimes mean more.”

\cutlineWASKO\Relating emotionally to her cancer patients, says Wasko, ‘helps them keep faith in themselves and gives them hope.’

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