The Chemotherapy Room
Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work
DECEMBER 10, 2019
All cancer treatment facilities have a designated area for chemotherapy infusions. For virtually all new patients, the first step into the Infusion Area (aka "The Chemo Room") is scary. You have no idea what to expect and envision something quite grim. Perhaps you imagine a large space full of very ill-appearing people, most of whom might be either sleeping or vomiting. Mostly, you are thinking about yourself and what lies ahead. Will it hurt? Who will be my chemo nurse and will I like her/him? How sick will I be? And, above all else, is this going to work and stop the cancer?
What you see will be quite different from your imaginings. I think that, wherever they are, most Infusion Areas are alike. They may be bigger or smaller, have more or fewer private rooms or spaces, and more or less attention paid to exterior views and décor. They all have large chairs (think oversized recliners), and a few hospital-like rooms for patients who are very ill or will be spending the entire day for a long treatment. Most have some way to increase privacy if that is your choice, usually a curtain that can be pulled around the treatment chair. There are likely to be one or two regular chairs for accompanying family or friends, a small television, and always a chest of supplies for the nurse.
When the room is full, it is bustling. There will be people chatting and, as hard as this may be to imagine, even laughing. There are nurses sitting at some chairs, talking and managing the infusion itself. There are other staff people, nursing assistants or techs or doctors or social workers, moving around and talking to others. The patients themselves, all hooked up to IVs or waiting to be connected, are occasionally sleeping, but are much more likely to be talking or working on a tablet or computer or watching the television or a movie. There is food. Most treatment centers provide some snacks and, perhaps, lunch to patients, and many people bring their own. Thankfully, everyone seems to recognize that this is not the place for smelly food, so you don't have to contend with odors that might be unpleasant.
You will see that thought has been given to increasing your comfort. There are warm blankets and pillows available. There are, per above, curtains or screens to provide privacy. You can always ask for tea or a cold beverage, and someone will be constantly checking in to monitor the infusion and your well-being.
What is very special about BIDMC are our Patient to Patient, Heart to Heart volunteers who work in the Infusion Area. They are all individuals who have been through chemotherapy themselves and have been trained to be thoughtful supporters of other patients and families receiving treatment. They are not there to talk about themselves (although they will, of course, answer your questions), but to listen to your story, to keep you company, to distract you if you would like to think about something different. Through the years, we have had all kinds of wonderful people in this role, each bringing their own talents. Some brought home-baked treats each week (until the rules changed and that was deemed unacceptable) while others were prepared to talk endlessly about the Red Sox or last night's football game.
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What is most surprising is how quickly this space will seem familiar and comfortable. New patients are shocked and disbelieving when told that they eventually may even feel reluctant to leave, to say good-bye to the nurses and volunteers and other staff, but it is true. People coming back for follow-up medical visits often take a detour to the Treatment Area to visit their friends.
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