When I don't cry with my patients or work effectively with them, then it will be time to move on. I hope what I do compliments a higher power. I just try to give quality of life along the road.
BYLINE1:By McKIBBEN JACKINSKY
In the world of cancer, oncology nurse Kathy Lopeman shines a bright light of understanding, treatment, and, most of all, compassion that helps patients push back the darkness of isolation, fear and uncertainty.
Expanding beyond the Central Peninsula General Hospital Oncology/Infusion Center's walls, Lopeman has taken the entire Kenai Peninsula under her wing, raising funds for cancer patients and research, facilitating support groups and coordinating events.
Whether she's administering treatment, training nurses or jumping in the Polar Bear Plunge, Lopeman's light is bright and her commitment complete.
"When you have cancer, you feel like you're the only one," said Nikiski resident Ann Perry. "But she acts like she's fighting the disease with you. She's there 100 percent."
Perry knows firsthand about Lopeman's commitment.
"I worked with her 10 years ago and then I got cancer in June 1997," said Perry. "Now she's my caretaker. I always looked up to her at work. Now she's taking care of me, and I think, 'Oh yeah, that&'s why I liked her so much.' She cares deeply."
Former cancer patient Alyson Stogsdill agreed.
"Before, when someone heard the word 'cancer,' they immediately thought it was a death sentence," said Stogsdill. "I think she's helped educate the community about how far research and technology have come. They don't need to be afraid. You can beat it."
Lopeman's reason for doing what she does is simple.
"I have a passion for it," she said. "I love what I do. It's always a challenge."
Lopeman is someone who doesn't run away from challenges.
In June of 1984, friends offered the Wyoming single parent and her two children an opportunity to visit Alaska. The price tag: simply drive her friends' truck from Wyoming to their home in Delta Junction. Adding to the challenge was a 1957 Mercury that had to be towed behind the truck.
Short on cash, but long on vacation hours, Lopeman took the offer.
"I fell in love with Alaska," she said. "I couldn't get it out of my head."
A month later, after returning home to Wyoming, she and her children voted on whether to move to Alaska. It was a unanimous decision, and Lopeman announced her plans to her employer, Lutheran Homes and Hospitals Society, for whom she worked as a practical nurse. Her employer also managed Soldotna's Central Peninsula General Hospital at the time.
When Lopeman and her sons arrived on the peninsula, she thought she had secured employment at the Soldotna hospital through her employer. However, much to her surprise, the necessary paperwork had not been completed.
"I couldn't find any job openings, and I couldn't find a place to live," she said. "So we lived in a tent in Centennial Campground until we had to move out when they closed the campground at the end of summer."
Laughing at the memory, Lopeman said campground officials kept telling her, "You can't stay in one spot for more than two days.
"I told them everything I had was sitting right there and I wasn't about to keep moving it," she said. But rules were rules, so they required her to at least move her vehicle every two days, thereby giving the appearance of complying with requirements.
"It was great fun," she said, looking back on their introduction to the Kenai Peninsula. "My kids now say it was best thing we ever did."
By the end of that year, Lopeman was working two jobs, and her family moved out of its tent and into a little trailer at River Terrace. Finally, the paperwork fiasco was straightened out and Lopeman began working at the hospital.
In the years ahead, she confronted a more demanding challenge. Her mother, Una Thompson, who lived out of state, was diagnosed with colon cancer. Witnessing the treatment her mother received, Lopeman was convinced she never wanted to be an oncology nurse.
"I thought it was a terrible kind of nursing," she said. "I never wanted to do it. Treating people like that took away their quality of life," she said, referencing the way her mother's treatment was administered and the toll it took.
In July 1990, Thompson died.
"It was very difficult to handle her death," said Lopeman, who had lost her father in 1978. However, her mother's passing opened a door through which Lopeman discovered new meaning in her own life.
While assigned to Soldotna's medical and surgical unit, she began noticing the interaction needed with families of cancer patients, the extra care that was required.
"I found out I was good at it," Lopeman said. "I'd found my niche." However, the memories of her mother's experience caused Lopeman to question becoming more deeply involved in oncology. Finally, she found the inspiration she needed.
"It was like I heard my mother say to me, 'If you don't like how it was done, do something about it.' And so I did," Lopeman said. "I was finally able to give something back."
Her husband, Bill, has seen the impact Thompson's experience had on his wife.
"It seems like it's something she's trying to do for her mom sometimes," he said. "She's definitely the right person to do what she's doing."
While continuing to work full time at Central Peninsula General Hospital, Lopeman completed classes for a registered nursing degree at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She received her chemotherapy administration certification from Anchor-age's Providence Hospital in 1993 and went on to become a National Oncology Certified nurse.
Alongside Lopeman's growth has been the development of Central Peninsula General Hospital's oncology unit.
Stogsdill remembered where treatments used to be administered.
"In 1990, when I first was diagnosed with cancer, there were really no facilities. You could take chemotherapy, but it was done in a closet at the hospital," she said. "Now they have a whole wing and have Kathy available to be a caregiver and an advocate for cancer patients. It's truly invaluable."
Robyn Stein, assistant administrator and director of nursing at the hospital has watched both Lopeman and the oncology unit develop.
"When I got here three years ago, (Lopeman) was doing chemotherapy in the in-patient department," said Stein. "We really saw the need to pull her out, give her more space and establish Monday through Friday services. Once we did that, she was able to grow with the program."
Today, the Central Peninsula General Hospital Oncology/Infusion Center consists of a whole wing that provides services five days a week and receives referrals from in and out of state. Cancer patients on the peninsula can now receive treatment within short driving distance of their homes.
Oncology nursing is not a nine-to-five job.
"It covers so many areas of a patient's life," said Stein. "Nutrition, exercise, the ability to get back to work in addition to all the emotional aspects of dealing with a cure. Pain, the actual diagnosis itself, the drugs being given.
"Actually, the holistic part of it is what makes it so special to nurses that work with it. They get the opportunity to work on a whole level."
For Lopeman, being involved has taken her from Seward to Homer, from jumping into Resurrection Bay to walking around Skyview High School's track.
For three years, Lopeman has participated in Seward's Polar Bear Plunge. A nonprofit charitable organization, the Polar Bear Jump-off Festival is a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society. According to organizer Marilyn Reynolds, this year's plunge (jumping into Resurrection Bay) brought in $70,000 in pledges for the American Cancer Society.
Although Lopeman has jumped the past two years, an injury prevented her from participating personally this year. However, she found someone else to take her place on a team organized by the Nikiski Lions Club. Related weekend events raised money for the Kenai Peninsula Children with Cancer program, Reynolds said.
"Kathy's been able to get grants for peninsula kids," she said. This year's activities raised approximately $8,000.
Recently Lopeman traveled to South Peninsula Hospital to conduct a basic chemotherapy class.
"Kathy is just an invaluable resource for all the communities," said Gayle Claus, a registered nurse at South Peninsula Hospital for 15 years. "She has many years of experience and a wealth of knowledge, not just about the technical part of administering these drugs, but the impact on patients and the importance of helping them deal with it. She's an excellent teacher."
Sharon Merchant, acute care manager for South Peninsula Hospital, said they were happy with what Lopeman was able to do.
"She's available at any time, which is a good thing," said Merchant.
Barbara Gill, patient services director in the Anchorage office of the American Cancer Society is well acquainted with Lopeman.
"She is a very dedicated nurse and is there for her patients and families," Gill said. "She has attended many of the American Cancer Society's oncology nurses educational seminars held here in Anchorage. She has a wealth of resource information to assist her clients."
Along with her husband, Lopeman is a member of the Caribou Hills Cabin Hoppers snowmachine club. Margaret Goodman met Lopeman through the club nine years ago.
"She's involved in club activities that raise money for members who are ill," Goodman said about her friend. "Her heart just goes out to each and every one of them. I don't understand how she does it. It takes a very special person to have that kind of compassion for everyone."
Lopeman also facilitates a support group for cancer patients. It meets at the hospital at 7 p.m. on the first and third Wednesdays of the month.
Lopeman's co-workers also recognize the importance of her role.
"We usually do what Kathy needs urgently because we know the nature of why her patients are here," said Rhonda Baisden, a medical laboratory technologist who does blood counts at Lopeman's request. "We know the situation could be serious, so we get them right back to her."
Information from Baisden lets Lopeman know if patients are healthy enough for treatment. Sometimes transfusions are required, in which case Baisden works with Lopeman to identify blood compatibility.
"She's one person who does make a difference," Baisden said.
Lopeman also has relied on Baisden for support in another area. In May 1999, Lopeman organized the peninsula's first Relay for Life, a 24-hour event at Skyview High School that benefited the American Cancer Society and was patterned after other relays held around the United States. Baisden was one of the team captains.
Money is raised through pledges secured by team members who commit to walk a specific distance. Exceeding all expectations, the 1999 event pulled in approximately 1,000 participants and raised $39,000.
The goal for this year's activity, of which Baisden will serve as co-coordinator, is $50,000.
In a profession where caregivers give so much of themselves, what are the risks of burning out?
"In oncology, there's so much interaction (with the patients) that it isn't typically the area where you see burnout," Stein said.
For Lopeman, being an oncology nurse is a long-term commitment.
"When I don't cry with my patients or work effectively with them, then it will be time to move on," she said. "I hope what I do compliments a higher power. I just try to give quality of life along the road."
She also attributes her husband with providing needed support.
"It takes a special person to give me the hugs that I need," she said. "He's always there for me, to dry my tears. Without his support, I couldn't do what I do."
Bill sees it as a two-way street.
"She's pretty special. I've always said that about her," he said. "She and I kind of look at things the same way, as far as marriage is concerned. One supports the other. It's just a matter of two people taking care of each other."
At the 1999 Relay for Life, as the Alaska spring evening settled over participants who logged miles around the track, jackets were zipped and hats were pulled down over ears to ward off the night air. Lining the track were luminaries, sand-bagged candles, burning in honor of individuals who have or have had cancer. Their flickering lights glowed brighter as daylight faded, adding a sense of warmth to the chilly evening.
The following poem, printed on the programs, was written about the luminaries:
It's just a little candle
To light up the night.
Just a little candle
But it burns so bright.
It's the light of hope
To help us all cope
With the pain
That cancer can bring.
It's just a little candle,
The thought is not so new,
But it's a powerful way
To remember you!
Much the same could be said for Lopeman. Her commitment is a bright light of hope and comfort.
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