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Front-line hope: The team that fills the gaps between cancer scans

For firefighters facing an occupational cancer diagnosis, the days of feeling depressed, alone and tired can be tempered by the supportive nurses and techs around you


The nurses and technicians are the empathetic links between the miner and the assayer, between scan and notification, between knowledge and endless speculation.

Photo/Jim Spell

There is no greater day of infamy than when you first learn you have cancer. But as horrible as that day is, with its denial, anger, shock and an all-encompassing numbness, it is widely acknowledged by many who have been through this experience that the true worst time in your journey through malignancy are the days between your cancer scans (PET, CT, X-rays) and their corresponding results.

It is difficult to describe the days stretching out into an unknown barren horizon, the scan results hidden away in some radiologist’s office to be disseminated by appointment only. The days of feeling depressed, alone, tired and sad are upon you.

These in-between days are filled with uninformed but infinitely anticipated confirmation dependent on mood and fatigue – good or bad, life or death, one way or another. All of this projected anxiety is mixed with any and all good wishes in their many, many forms from everyone who “means well.”

Ongoing shock

Your buddy tells you, “I know what you’re going through.” Really? With teeth clenched, you react immediately and apologize later. The nurses tell you it’s a normal reaction for a patient often still in shock, even weeks or months later.

As first responders, we have seen all levels of shock, from the man trying in vain to put the headlight back on his notably smashed Thunderbird to the numb woman holding an unresponsive child.

The personal connection is something akin to being a child finding out that grandma died. It wells up inside when you hear the words, but the meaning doesn’t connect until later. Shock is around anytime you are alive but especially now.

A bird sitting on a fence post, a train whistles far in the distance, a song heard in the back of a restaurant. Anything and everything can be a trigger for tears, the final chapter in a moment of shock. Shock is not just exhibited in the aftermath of notification; it lives inside forever, void of despair, just there.

More waiting

Of course there are many more excruciating wait times than just the interval between a scan and its results. Repeated over and over are the countless times waiting in the office for a tech to take vitals, a physician assistant approval for a long awaited “team” decision, and in more real time, the hours spent waiting for any proclamation by an actual physician or the endless follow-up on a prescription that didn’t get filled.

At the core of your waning strength, you try to convince yourself that you have time enough for all of it. Unfortunately, your body, with its daily reminders of stabbing pain, nausea and growing fatigue, knows the truth. There is only one moment in time left for you, and it is fast-approaching. Wallowing in limbo, anything else is just an unnecessary but excepted waste.

The bullpen

Combatting this overwhelming depression from not knowing and having to wait through all of it are the nurses and techs associated with your daily regimen. The Spirit Blue Ladies (SBL), as I call them, are the empathetic links between the miner and the assayer, between scan and notification, between knowledge and endless speculation. Chemotherapy, fluid replacement, a warm blanket and soft music – this is the time for compassionate professional healers to bring hope to all patients. Time spent now, in shared commiseration with these ladies, is greatly appreciated, if only for a sympathetic ear and a comforting smile.

Dressed in blue scrubs, these nurses live between a somewhat comfortable computer desk and all the patients needing their immediate care. This is the “bullpen,” home of the responsibilities of endless documentation and continuing patient status. It is between the bullpen and the chemo chairs that these nurses become the cheerleaders on your survival gridiron.

It’s dawn and the early patient and late-night nurses of the Morning Coffee Clutch welcome the day crew into the bullpen for another round of chemotherapy. This family of friends pauses for quiet conversation and rest. There is a welcomed silence before the ballet of hypodermic tubbing, meters and monitors, all on mobile poles dancing among the tones of chemical combinations and saline.

By definition, and in the nature of the disease, all patients are waiting for something. For now, sitting in a chemotherapy chair is a grateful pause.

Spiritual connections

Some may wonder whether it is possible to find gratitude in grace amid such an experience. Gratitude in grace. The wording sounds simple enough, but the ability to succeed in such an undertaking is at the very core of our continual survival and the ability to withstand the onslaught of treatments, home adjustments, and the constant schedule of journeys into the unknown.

Grace is a moment of self-realization that comes from having a sense of purpose combined with a twinkling of spirituality. Spirituality manifests itself anytime and anywhere these days. Being open to spirituality increases the opportunity for connection – the breath of a newborn or the miracle of human association, like the connections made with the nurses and techs who help us.

Aligning spirituality with grace requires a human connection – a phone call from a friend, a note to make you laugh. These experiences move you. From this moment comes the realization that such feelings constitute progress – and to make progress positive is to have faith. It is faith that unites and guides spirituality to the human condition.

It stands to reason that by making progress you connect to purpose. Combining a grounded sense of purpose with an esoteric flash of spirituality gives you the opportunity to accept gratitude in grace. Thankfulness is found in the atmosphere of grace and whatever arrangements are made for life’s continuation of personal satisfaction and contribution.

To receive this dichotomy into your being, even for an instant, allows you to survive the days of not knowing a little more comfortably … like a hot cup of coffee from a Spirit Blue Lady.

Dedicated to Chief Ron Coleman, friend and mentor.

Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advises businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing has won six IAFF Media Awards. Spell has an associate’s degree in fire science and a bachelor’s degree in communications. His articles are available by Podcast at, and his latest book is “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell can be reached at