Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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Summer Reading 2013: New Books With a New Jersey Connection -- 'Toms River'

In "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation," journalist Dan Fagin explores the scientific evidence as to whether environmental pollution caused a cancer cluster in the Ocean County township. The book was published by Random House in March. In this chapter, Fagin describes how oncology nurse Lisa Boornazian, through a conversation with her sister-in-law, contributed to the quest to find the truth.

Summer Reading 2013: New Books With a New Jersey Connection -- 'Toms River'

In "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation," journalist Dan Fagin explores the scientific evidence as to whether environmental pollution caused a cancer cluster in the Ocean County township. The book was published by Random House in March. In this chapter, Fagin describes how oncology nurse Lisa Boornazian, through a conversation with her sister-in-law, contributed to the quest to find the truth.

It is no small challenge to spend long days and longer nights in a place where children die, but Lisa Boornazian had the knack. She began working at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in 1991, during the summer of her senior year of nursing school at Villanova University. The following year she found a home in the cancer ward at CHOP. Back then she was Lisa Davenport, and not much older than some of her patients. “I loved working in oncology. I saw plenty of nurses who came to work at the unit and it wasn’t what they expected. They just couldn’t stay. But I loved it,” she remembered. The ward was a surprisingly lively place, where little kids dashed down the wide hallways with their wheeled intravenous stands clattering beside them. The older children, though, were much more difficult to deal with. “The teenagers had a grasp of death, and what the diagnosis meant,” Boornazian said. “The younger kids mostly had no idea.” Those with brain or bone cancers faced long odds. Survival rates were better for children with blood cancers, principally leukemia and lymphoma, but their treatments took many months and were brutal: chemotherapy, often followed by radiation and bone marrow transplants.

The work shifts on the oncology ward were organized in a way that made it impossible for the nurses to keep an emotional distance from their assigned patients, since the same three or four nurses would take care of a child for months on end. Their relationships with parents were equally intense. Many parents practically lived in the ward and went home only to shower and change clothes before rushing back. The nurses worked under the unforgiving gaze of mothers and fathers driven half-mad by lack of sleep and the sight of their children enduring a pitiless cycle of excruciating needle sticks, nausea attacks, and dressing changes. Parents would frequently take out their anger on the nurses, and the nurses who lasted on the ward learned to respond without rancor or condescension. The long shifts, especially the sleepless overnights, created an intimacy among nurse, parent, and child that no one else could share—certainly not the doctors and social workers, who were mere transients by comparison. The nurses were family. And when it was time for a funeral, the nurses did what family members do: They showed up, and they mourned.

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