Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Goodbye to a great guy

During my first round of chemotherapy for leukemia in 2003, I had a funny nurse named Vytas. In between treatments, while resting at home, I fainted, and my son Ben took my mother and me to the emergency room at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. We waited there all day, the local nurse updating Vytas at the other end. Finally, an ambulance became available and took us to Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston around 9 p.m.

Vytas was waiting at the other end. On the chalkboard he had drawn a picture of himself – a bald grinning elfin guy with a curl sprouting from his head – and the words "Welcome back, Ronni."

It was past the end of his shift, but he said he wanted to see me through. He made me feel better. And I needed all the help I could get. I had a fever and was covered from head to toe with a rash that made me want to either scream or cry.

Over many years and through four bone marrow transplants, he always took that extra step. His kindness and sense of humor helped me get through many tough spots. I'd panic over some new detour on the road to recovery, and he'd calm me down with a mix of knowledge, a talent for putting things in perspective, and, always, something funny.

Vytas Durickas died yesterday. His daughter found him in his Newton Corner home, where he had apparently suffered a heart attack. (This is a correction. I originally thought his niece found him, but his son corrected me in his comment.

He had been through lymphoma twice. He liked going to cancer conferences where the focus was on getting emotionally healthy. He told me (and I assume other patients): What will be, will be. Don't look back. Don't waste time worrying. Stay in the present. Make plans. Enjoy yourself.

He called me Nervous Nellie. He'd come into my room, plop into a chair, and say, "OK, what's wrong today?" Then he'd deconstruct it so I understood the options. When that wasn't possible, he simply said, "They'll figure it out." He said it with such confidence that I believed him.

He was the antidote for crazy thoughts. When I was newly home after my first transplant, my dog got skunked and then ran through the house. I called Vytas and asked if skunk fumes could make me sick. No, he said, they couldn't.

When I entered the hospital for my third transplant, he welcomed me to my new room by writing on the board, "The third time's the charm."

Last year, after my fourth transplant when I was really sick, he came in at night when his shift was over and squeezed my hand. Katie said that one evening when the kids were there, Vytas showed that he knew "Ronni-speak." He asked me if I wanted anything and I kind of grunted. "Oh," he said, "She's cold and she wants a blanket." So he put a blanket on me, and I pulled it up closer to my chin. "Is that what you wanted?" he asked. I made a little noise again and nodded my head.

At the end of that hospitalization, he vanished. From what I gathered, he had walked into the emergency room feeling ill, and ended up being admitted for heart surgery. He wanted to keep it quiet, and it took me a while to find out where he was. When I saw him again during his recuperation, he said everything was fine. He stayed out of work for a while and was happy to return. He didn't discuss his heart much, although I'm sure others knew more details. He worked last week.

Life is strange. All this focus on lymphoma, and he dies of a heart attack. The weak heart may have had some connection to the radiation he received for lymphoma, but I'm not sure of the details.

He seemed like the Energizer Bunny. It's hard to believe this great guy is gone.
When I went to the clinic on Monday, I had this strong feeling about calling him. I even picked up my cell phone to dial him, but I got distracted and never did it. I figured it could wait until next week.

Obviously, it couldn't.


PJ said...

I am so saddened by the news about Vytas. I didn't know him as well as you, but he was there for me on two occasions, just doing his job, but with that extra caring touch.

He was there for me when I have the rabbit serum during my first transplant--stayed in my room all night and kept my husband calm. He wasn't my nurse during transplant #2, but he was on duty one night and stopped by to visit several times. What a mensch.

We can be comforted knowing he lived his life on his terms, and that he touched so many. We will miss you, Vytas.

Unknown said...

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Anonymous said...

Vytas was my uncle. My partner found your blog entry last night while googling. Vytas was THE most awesome guy. All of your little memories bring back memories of my own.

Michael said...

This meant as a message for you (Ronni) rather than a public comment.

Thank you for sharing. Your blog about my father made its way to me this morning. It was very nice to read. Everything about the memories you shared sounded just like him, right down to the fun little notes he would make for us. He had three boys and a girl and we’re all home now. It was his daughter who found him. One his other sons had seen him less than a half hour before.

Anyway, you are more than welcome to attend the wake and anything else (it’s all public). The info is in today’s globe.

The damage to his heart was from the radiation treatment. Early radiation treatment was less targeted which increased the risk for this kind of thing and made it harder to hit the cancer if it came back since you can hit the same spots twice. I add this in case you have had the treatment, and, knowing that you would have been treated when they were better at it. He wouldn’t want you to worry right ;-)

Again, thanks for sharing. It was nice to hear from a patient of his.

-Michael Durickas

Diane said...

Ronni - A loving tribute to a truly loving person. He had a strong connection to you and to all of us in our family. When I saw him a month or so ago when visiting a friend at the hospital, he was instantly worried - "Is Ronni sick?" When I assured him that I was there for someone else, he took a sigh of relief but then immediately signed up to be her nurse too.

Over the many, many months of your hospitalizations, I was always comforted to know that Vytas was there - knowing what you needed not just from the standpoint of excellent medical and nursing care, but for your emotional needs, and as a true friend.

He always extended that kindness to me as well, providing reassurance when he saw the troubled look in my eyes as I wandered the hallways.

The nursing and patient community are bleaker today with the loss of one of the finest, and I am saddened at the loss of someone I trusted as a family friend.

Marilyn said...

In passing along his thoughts on how to live, you have honored him.

Also, this sentence: "All this focus on lymphoma, and he dies of a heart attack" sealed it. Profound observation!

All our projecting into the future, out of a belief it somehow gives us control, is a waste and drains this day of its energy.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for the death of your friend and trusted nurse. You have written a wonderful tribute to him.

Anonymous said...

I am PJ's husband, and Vytas was there for me for the 8 hours of the rabbit serum, or as he called it, shake and bake. He managed to keep me calm as we watched Patty go through her ordeal, and he mixed humor and knowledge to do it. A special person, never too busy to come see us even if we weren't his assignment. He was a kind gentle spirit.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Ronni, My sincere condolences on your loss.

In addition to the pain of grief over losing a gentle and generous person who played an important role in your life, there might be the disquieting sense of life being out of order: He was the one caring for you, and now you are the one grieving. Such is life.

Sending you wishes for strength in saying your good-byes and finding ways to honor his life.

One way to honor his memory is to continue to benefit from his words: Don't look back. Don't waste time worrying. Stay in the present. Make plans. Enjoy yourself.

With sympathy and hope, Wendy

Trish said...

Ronni---how wonderful to have had Vytas in your life! Sounds like he touched many people. Also sounds like he gave as much as his heart could handle---and now he's done. A part of me might look at that as a good omen---maybe you're done with needing him at the hospital? :-)

I am sorry for your (and everyone's) loss of such a great man. I am sure his loss will be felt far and wide---I too miss the one nurse who knew how to get a vein on me and could tell when I was crashing even before I could verbalize it.

May his memory be for a blessing and may his acts of loving kindness live on forever in you and all he touched.

Ann said...

I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. Your words are a beautiful tribute.

Nelle said...

What a wonderful tribute to this caring man. The radiation I had to treat my lymphoma caused valve problems for me and I had to have one valve replaced. The heart surgeon told me it looked like it had burn scars on it. This is why I no longer worry about the original diagnosis.
Sorry for the loss of your friend and supporter.

Daria said...

Just doesn't make sense ... sorry for the loss of your friend.