A nurse has a unique perspective on illness and sympathy for her patients after losing a leg to cancer.
VANCOUVER — A lot of people helped Christina Gay move forward in life, and now it’s her turn.
Recently, she was helping a patient take his first steps down a hospital hallway after surgery at the Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.
It’s a situation Gay has seen from both sides: first as a cancer patient and now as a nurse.
“To understand what it’s like to be in that bed and not know what’s going on: It helps me when I explain something,” Gay said. “I have a little more empathy.”
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Gay lost her lower right leg to cancer. She started having problems with her leg the summer before her senior year of high school.
“It was swollen and painful,” she said. After X-rays were taken, “They told me I had a fracture, but there was nothing that I did to cause one.”
The next step, an MRI, provided the answer: She had a tumor.
“They did chemo for five months to try to shrink it. The first surgery was a bone transplant. The donor bone was from a girl about my age who had died. It never healed.
“There was a cascade of surgeries after that — seven or eight surgeries in three years; screws, rods, it never healed,” she said. “I was constantly on crutches, in pain.”
There was another option.
“They gave me the choice of doing the amputation. They wanted to let me decide. It was the most viable option, the best chance to get back on my feet.
“I felt comfortable” with the decision,” she said. “At that point, I was having all the surgeries and nothing was working.
“Once they had mentioned amputation, I found a support group, and I could learn from an amputee what it was like.”
They included the late Dale Bowlin, an Army veteran who lost a leg in Germany during World War II.
“Dale was one of the first people I met,” Gay said. “He thought it was amazing that I sought out a support group before it happened.”
Gay was in the nursing program at Clark College at that point, and was not about to change her plans.
“When I had set my thoughts on becoming a nurse, I was destined and determined to do it,” she said. “Even if cancer had gotten in my way, I was going to work through and around it and still come out at the top with a college degree that would eventually lead me to a job I absolutely love.
She graduated from Clark College in 2012 and then moved on to WSU Vancouver. Gay is approaching her four-year work anniversary at Legacy Salmon Creek.
Gay has found another way to help a particular category of patients: those who share her own medical history.
“We have people who have parts of their bodies amputated, or a patient who is in for something else has a prosthetic leg. If they seem open, I share that with them,” she said.
“One patient I can remember just had a below-the-knee amputation from diabetes. His daughter was there. He was very quiet and stoic. I was taking care of him that night.”
Gay said she lifted her pant leg and showed them her own prosthetic leg.
“They started crying. His daughter gave me a hug. I felt I helped someone in a way other than nursing.”
Gay was part of a program that began in 1995 to help children attending four Vancouver elementary schools called I Have a Dream of Southwest Washington. It was designed to help more than 300 kids in four low-income neighborhoods graduate from high school and then move on to higher education or career training.