• Iris & Me

    By Charles A. Griffis, PhD, CRNA

    It was July 2000, and a busy day in the ambulatory surgery center. Entering Cubicle 4, I found a statuesque lady with striking white hair and piercing blue eyes sitting on the gurney with a nervous smile, surrounded by her husband and children. Her diagnosis: Right breast mass, scheduled for lumpectomy under monitored anesthesia care.

    After quick introductions all around and a brief focused history from Ms. Iris M., I went to her left arm to start the IV. Her hand was clammy and cold. I pulled up a chair and asked if I could just sit and hold her hand a moment. She put on a brave face, but was really scared.

    “It’ll be OK,” I told her. “I’m going to be right there the whole time, and you will sleep like a baby. When you wake up, it’ll be all done. Let me get this little IV in, and I’ll start making you feel good right here and now.” Iris and her husband said “thank you” at the same time, and she added, “Your kindness is like those drugs you give people!” I guess that’s when we all bonded.

    Two months later, the family requested my services for Iris’s right mastectomy with lymph node dissection. We all chatted like old friends as I put another IV in, and I answered questions about her chemotherapy and radiation therapy. She showed me her bare scalp under the surgical cap and the kids pulled up funny pictures of Iris next to her equally bald grandbaby. I visited Iris in her postop 24-hour stay, and we chatted about my idea of doing pain research and getting a PhD, while I delivered some acupressure for her pain and nausea.

    One year later, Iris’s family called me, and I came in on my day off to sedate her for a line insertion for palliative care. She was thin to emaciation and so pale she was almost transparent, but with those same piercing blue eyes. Iris reached out to give me a cautious hug, groaning with pain from the spinal bone metastases. I greeted the grim family warmly, with a few words of comfort. This time, Iris asked them to step out while I looked for the last remaining peripheral vein, which I found in her right foot.

    “Well, Chuck, I guess I flunked cancer. I’m dying,” she told me, her tears welling up. I sat down next to her and held her thin hand. “I know you’re scared, but you’ve got lots of loved ones to watch over you, and all of us here at UCLA. We’ll all be here for you. And this line will help make you feel better with some great medicine. Let’s go get this done for you.”

    A couple of months later, the family called me and asked if I would like to see Iris at home one last time. I hesitated. Did I want to see my dying patient? Her daughter said, “She’s asked for you to come by.” I went. With her eyes far away, Iris squeezed my hand and whispered to me, “Chuck, you’ve got to go back to school and do something about this dying in pain thing, dear.”

    Two weeks later, Iris passed away. At her memorial service, when they called my name to speak, I thought, “What am I doing here? What can I say?” I went to the microphone, took a deep breath — and to my surprise, the words flowed easily:

    “It was my duty, honor, and pleasure caring for this brave woman. In my job as a nurse anesthetist, there are special people and situations we encounter, and Iris and her loving family was one of those. I cherish the care and comfort we gave her. And as Iris requested, I am going back to school to study how to keep people comfortable and pain-free. And I’m going to dedicate the next part of my career to Iris.”

    I did exactly that, earning my PhD in nursing and pain physiology from the UCLA School of Nursing in 2005. In August 2010, AANA Foundation named me the John F. Garde Researcher of the Year for my exploration of neuro-immune responses to pain in human subjects: work inspired by one unforgettable patient.

    In my acceptance speech at AANA’s Annual Meeting, I was able to thank her publicly: “I dedicate this award, and the pain research we have begun and will continue to do, to my patient, Iris M.” I held the lovely cut-glass vase high.

    “Iris, this one’s for you.”