‘A year…if you’re lucky’

Brenau nursing students learn communications skills in many ways, including role playing and discussions of how they would handle tragic real-life situations with patients and their loved ones. Sometimes, however, a ‘scenario’ hits close to home. 

Peyton’s hero was Buzz Lightyear. Kelly recalls one of the many “acts of kindness” when a police officer at the hospital left his post to go find a Buzz Lightyear action figure.

In her new role as a public speaker, Kelly Flanagan McCormick, WC ’04, starts her story with a smile and the wistful observation: “I had the perfect life.”

McCormick, who grew up in Marietta, Ga., and now lives in Warner Robins, Ga., notes a few milestones: At Brenau, she served as president of her sorority, Delta Delta Delta, and as a member of the H.G.H. Society. After graduating from the nursing program in 2004, she landed a plum position in the cardiac wing of Atlanta’s Piedmont Hospital. Not long afterward, she married an Air Force sergeant, and they started a family. First came their son, Peyton, and then a daughter, MacKenzie.

So McCormick felt busy, challenged and fulfilled. Not many people in their 20s check off so many career and family objectives with such clarity and assurance. She moved around with her military husband, Rob, and worked for a time on the trauma team of the emergency room of Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. Then they were transferred to Clovis, a small town in eastern New Mexico near the Texas panhandle border. She recalls one September night in particular from 2010 like a freeze-frame photo from her reel of memories:
“We were leaving a restaurant in Amarillo, where my husband was trying to eat a 72-ounce steak in one of those steak-challenge contests – he wasn’t able to finish the whole thing,” McCormick says. “I was playing with the kids in the car. Peyton had just turned 2 years old, and his sister was 3 months old. We were all laughing together and having a relaxing, good time as a family – so normal, so perfect. Right?”

She pauses.

“That’s when I noticed Peyton crossing his eyes. At first, I thought, ‘well, he’s just now learned how to do that, so he’s playing with me.’”

However, the tic persisted. She discussed his condition with her mother, who is also a nurse and Brenau alumna, Nancy Patrick Flanagan, WC ’77, and then made an appointment with an ophthalmologist in Lubbock, Texas. “I thought that, at most, Peyton might need glasses for a lazy eye, so I packed my diaper bag just to make a day trip into the city.”

She never returned to their house in New Mexico.

 

The scariest words

“Over time, people find words in their vocabulary that weigh heavier than all of the other words,” she says. “Mine are ‘mass’ and ‘M.R.I.’ I’ll never forget the doctor’s words: ‘Our worst fears have been confirmed.’ The day before, Peyton had been running around, playing with Buzz Lightyear – a healthy, vibrant little boy. My biggest anxieties were how I would handle someone being mean to him on the playground, or how to help him through his first romantic break-up. But my ‘perfect life’ was shattered in that instant.”
The diagnosis was Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma – a brain tumor pressing against Peyton’s cranial nerve – with a survival prognosis of one year, “if we were lucky.” McCormick hustled him from Texas to Atlanta to be near her family and the city’s advanced medical resources, while friends packed up her things in Clovis to ship. “I left dirty dishes in the sink, dirty laundry, everything. I never walked back into that house.”

The ensuing, excruciating months before his death in June 2011 – of radiation and chemotherapy; of nights spent in the fluorescent glare and backache-inducing furniture of hospitals; of desperate prayers while waiting for test results; of the sight of her toddler losing his ability to walk and even grasp Buzz Lightyear – still clutch at her heart. She relates these experiences with tensile composure, though, and explains how they have tempered her calling.

“I don’t like the word ‘hell’, but that’s how it felt when we were planning Peyton’s burial while he was wiggling in my arms,” she says.

McCormick comes from a long line of nurses, including one who survived the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In addition to her mother, her grandmother and three aunts – all Brenau graduates, including Kathy Bridgefarmer, WC ’85, who now teaches at the university – wore the white uniform
(or, later, scrubs), and another aunt works in physical therapy. “So I grew up hearing all kinds of medical stories,” says McCormick.

Now she has some stories of her own, from both sides of the nurses’ station, and her “healing process,” she says, requires sharing them, especially with aspiring health-care workers who inevitably will encounter grief on their rounds.

 

The ‘art’ of the science

One of the hallmarks of the Brenau nursing program is teaching communications with patients, who as much as possible contribute significantly to their own diagnoses and treatment when nurses get and give the proper information, and with their families, who many times are in as much, if not more, trauma than the patients. The university’s state-of-the-art human simulator laboratory not only enables students to perform medical procedures, but also teaches them to communicate with patients and family members. (See “Ogletree’s Educational Ailments,” Brenau Window, Spring 2009.)

“Nursing is both an art and a science,” says Keeta Wilborn, director of the Brenau School of Nursing, which enrolls about 200 undergraduates and 60 graduate-level students. “So, we give our students a sound background in science while humanizing these situations. For example, we use our simulation lab to recreate what the cocaine overdose of a 22-year-old is like, and we bring in actors to play the patient’s family. All nursing schools try to emphasize the caring, social aspect of nursing. I’m not sure they all are as consistent as we are in incorporating that into the curriculum with role-playing – and with guest speakers such as Kelly.”

How does McCormick fit in? In April, on her own initiative, McCormick took the podium for an evening nursing class at Brenau East. She was not acting. She showed slides of Peyton and candidly discussed her hard-learned lessons:

Be there. “After we got this devastating news, we were just left alone in a room. They didn’t even offer us a glass of water or offer to get a chaplain. So just be present, even if you get yelled at, and even though it’s an uncomfortable situation. People grieve and react differently. But I remember no one being there.”

Do not encourage false hope. “If you don’t know an answer, just be honest and say so. I can remember being told that his tumor was shrinking and getting my hopes up. And I realized that, as a nurse, I probably had given patients false hope, too.”

Advocate for your patient. “If someone stops and asks you about how to pay a bill, don’t brush them off – take time to make the call to get someone there to answer their questions and help them navigate the bureaucracy, which can be an added layer of stress to the grief. I understand that better now that I’m still getting phone calls from the insurance company and yelling at them that I just buried my son.”

Keep your temper in check. “At the airport, just after we got the news, I was feeling shell-shocked, and Peyton was lying in the floor screaming and acting out, but didn’t look sick. A woman almost ran over him with her luggage, glared, and started going off on us. So, determined to do anything to protect my little boy, I got in her face and tried to tell her this news. The whole thing caused a scene. Keep that in mind when someone gets snappy with you. Before you snap back, remember that you never know what another person is going through at that moment.”

Small gestures make a big difference. “It’s natural to shield yourself from dying children, but we remember so well the nurses who reached out and went out of their way to greet us and seemed glad to see us coming in the door, even when Peyton was screaming and crying. You can’t always do these kinds of things, but one nurse sent a police officer out to get us a Buzz Lightyear, and I’ll never forget that act of kindness. Just a pat on the hand or back can mean the world, even if there are no words.

Do not take any moment for granted, even the difficult ones. “It was hard cleaning up puke from the car after his treatments, but now I’d give anything to be wiping it up.”

One student raises her hand and asks the question on everyone’s mind: How did you get through this?

“I don’t know how we did it,” McCormick says. “You just do it. It’s not the life I planned, but it’s the life I have. If Peyton’s story touches you and helps you become a better nurse to someone else, his memory will mean even more.”

“I can’t imagine not being a nurse,” Kelly McCormick says. Now she’s helping others prepare for the profession. Her third child, Connor, was born last November.

Her ordeal also had another positive effect. McCormick’s freshman year roommate Erin Kennedy Tongue, WC ’04, from Buford, Ga., orchestrated fund-raising for Peyton’s trip to Disneyworld. Other Brenau friends have organized and donated to fund-raisers for the McCormick family’s expenses and for brain tumor research.

“We all had fallen out of touch, the way people do, but those girls all really stepped up,” she says. “I think that’s a special kind of Brenau love that I probably wouldn’t have found at [bigger schools like] UGA.”

McCormick’s aunt Kathy Bridgefarmer, who worked at Northeast Georgia Medical Center before she became a professor, listens stoically to her niece’s presentation, dabs her eyes, and says later, “With the increase in technology, there’s a risk that more nursing will be digitized and done increasingly through the computer – like in every other career. We teach our students to care, that the special touch is important.

“I had a student who came back not long after she’d started to work and told me she’d been reprimanded for spending too much time with patients. I told her, ‘Honey, you can’t spend ‘too much time’ with them. There’s no such thing.’”

– Candice Dyer

For more information, you can visit Kelly McCormick’s blog at www.caringbridge.org/visit/peytonmccormick/journal. McCormick also planned to lead a team in the Tumor Trooper Run/Walk for the the Brain Tumor Foundation for Children in Alpharetta, Ga., this fall.

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