"Life-changing cancer journey, gratitude for UCLA Santa Monica Hospital's compassionate care, and a call to appreciate life's blessings."

Today is thirty plus days I stare at the beige walls and soft lit hallways of the UCLA Santa Monica Hospital Oncology floor. Since June I have been a repeat patient as I tackle the nuisances of cancer. I was diagnosed in January with a tumor on my left kidney. To say my life changed is an egregious understatement. My world axis shattered around me and in essence I died. The person I was will never exist again. I have lost all my ‘nexts’ as things are completely out of my control. My body no longer belongs to me. It is being carried by doctors, nurses, family, and friends. Those that love me are desperate for that hold because it ensures I am still here. Thankfully, for now I am and I will continue this journey with the mindset that I am going to live with cancer.

I’ve felt very unproductive rotating in and out of the hospital. Being a mother, wife, or a daughter are wishful thoughts. I am cuffed both physically and symbolically to my room with a barcode around my wrist. The halls are filled with patients struggling much worse than me and I ponder who is here fighting for them? Supporting them? Not everyone has a village to step up when things are so dire. That pained my heart in a different way. I am an elementary school teacher and it is ingrained in my being to be the caretaker. But now I am stuck. However, in the worst of this chapter of my life, I have seen humanity in a glow that I would not have otherwise. That beauty resonates from the nurse and care partner staff working tirelessly in the Southwest Wing of the Oncology floor.

My frequent visits to UCLA Santa Monica have given me the chance to connect with a great majority of the amazing humans here. The care transcends the typical healthcare checklist. This includes monitoring my medicines, bringing in special ultrasound machines to find my veins when they have shrunk up exponentially, rubbing my hand as the pain permeates throughout my body, making my bed like a hotel room to provide extra comfort, telling me all the positive stories of survivors to get my mind off the sadness, and much more. Not one opportunity for kindness or compassion ever missed. I am one of many patients and I know the same nurturing care is given to all of them.

Beyond the nursing attention, the staff I have spent days on end with have become quick friends. The loneliness of these rooms can overwhelm even the brightest extrovert. I am grateful for the extra moments where we were able to be people together. They listened to stories about my kids’ school adventures and told me about their little ones who are sleep training or going off to college. I celebrated their upcoming weddings and heard about honeymoon plans. We bonded over favorite food spots and making charcuterie boards. I watched a wonderful person take her first step as charge nurse and do a superb job. Some shared their personal experiences with cancer. Revealing these hidden scars made my own more magnificent. Cancer is the bully. We will continue on and address the challenges as they come because that’s life. My mother always told me you have to have the suffering to truly appreciate the joy.

I will forever be indebted to the nurses and care partners. If I am fortunate enough to one day pay it forward for them, it will be such a gift to me. During Covid, healthcare staff were hailed and celebrated. But how soon we forgot it all and went to the grind of our everyday. This staff never stopped. Cancer doesn’t care about pandemics and thankfully the patients here have them each day.

It is in human nature to be selfish and fixated on what is going on in our own world. I too was guilty of this to some extent. People shouldn’t need illness or trauma to reevaluate what is actually important. I know some of you will be in your cars right now complaining about LA traffic. Be happy you have a way to get around town. Others might be stressed because their home is a mess. Celebrate that you have a place to clean and make your own. My own husband would bicker with me about my OCD qualities. Now that we have been separated for weeks, he calls and tells me, “I go to sleep, I’m alone. I wake up, I’m alone. Come home and tell me about all the cracks on our newly painted walls.”

Take the time to appreciate the good in your life.

A reformed perfectionist educator & mommy,

Sylvia Kerkotchian