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Lessons in cancer and kindness

A Yukon nurse has been nominated for the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology's nurse of the year award. Kristy MacLeod runs the chemotherapy centre at Whitehorse General Hospital.

A Yukon nurse has been nominated for the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology’s nurse of the year award.

Kristy MacLeod runs the chemotherapy centre at Whitehorse General Hospital.

Just being there makes a huge difference to people suffering from cancer.

There have been times in the recent past where no chemotherapy treatment was available in the Yukon, because there was no nurse to deliver it.

Instead, patients would have to leave the territory for treatment, typically every two or three weeks.

MacLeod used to see some of those patients in her previous job at the B.C. Cancer Agency in Vancouver.

“We kept having this plethora of patients come through from Whitehorse,” said MacLeod. “I’d always be asking them, ‘What’s Whitehorse like? What’s it like up there?’ That’s when they started to tell me, ‘Oh, there’s no nurse available, so we’ve all had to fly out to have treatment done.’ That kind of got my thought process started on the whole concept of coming up here.”

MacLeod moved to Whitehorse in December of last year on a six-month contract.

Within two months, she had signed on for an additional six months.

Now, she hopes to take on the position permanently.

MacLeod works out of Karen’s Room, a dedicated space for chemotherapy treatment at the hospital, which opened in 2003.

The project to create the space was led by Jack Kobayashi in memory of his wife, Karen Wiederkehr.

Before that, people would have to sit in emergency or short-stay beds to receive treatment, said MacLeod.

“It just wasn’t the most therapeutic place for chemo to be given.”

Karen’s Room is set up like a living room, with couches, a television, a small kitchen and large recliner chairs for medical treatment.

A single treatment can last up to eight hours, so it’s important for people to feel at home, said MacLeod.

Each patient has their own quilt, which they pick out when they are first diagnosed.

The quilts are donated by the Haines Junction Quilt Club and Quilters Without Borders, said MacLeod.

A patient’s quilt will wait for them on one of the treatment chairs when they come in for an appointment.

When they graduate from treatment, MacLeod holds a party for them, complete with silly hats and cake, and the quilt is gifted to them.

The walls are decorated with donated art.

“Most of this room is completely donated,” said MacLeod.

It’s that spirit of kindness and generosity that makes her want to stay in the Yukon, she said.

Many may think a job working with cancer patients would be depressing, but MacLeod doesn’t see it that way.

“I find more hope and more inspiration from working with my patients going through chemotherapy than I have in all of my nursing career, working in any other area.”

Because she sees patients for such an extended period of time, a special bond develops between them, she said.

It was one of her patients who nominated her for the award.

“That’s a very Yukon thing, for your patients to nominate you. In so many other places, there’s not a lot of recognition or acknowledgement of a lot of the work that people do. Everyone kind of goes about their own lives. Whereas here, everyone is so caring and thoughtful of one another, that it just doesn’t surprise me that one of my patients would be that kind.”

MacLeod has worked with 64 patients since January, she said.

Some have graduated, some continue to receive treatment and some have passed on, she said.

MacLeod does much more than deliver chemotherapy.

She acts as a case manager, co-ordinating with oncology specialists in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton and guiding patients through treatment.

Patients often drop in for counselling, or to check in about side effects from the chemotherapy, she said.

She basically runs the chemotherapy clinic alone, although a second nurse at the hospital is available to fill in on occasion, she said.

MacLeod was born and raised in Vancouver. She spent the first four years of her nursing career at the Vancouver General Hospital, where she specialized in surgical oncology.

“I always thought I was a city person,” she said.

But after that, she spent several years in the Australian outback working to prevent and treat infectious disease in aboriginal communities.

That experience got her interested in working in Canada’s North, she said.

She had always been interested in the Yukon, said MacLeod.

Twelve nurses from across Canada have been nominated for the nurse of the year award.

The winner will be announced at the Canadian Association of Nurses in Oncology’s annual meeting on October 22 in Vancouver.

MacLeod will go down for the conference, she said.

“I can’t say enough about how honoured I am that I was even mentioned in this. I don’t think I’m in the same league as these other people who have been nominated for things. I really want to stress the fact that I recognize that this kindness and the effort that it took for someone to go through this process of nominating, to me is such a Yukon trait, it’s such a Whitehorse trait.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at