A scratchy throat drove Russell Owings, of Arrington, Va., to his primary care physician last September. And if esophageal cancer was the last thing he imagined, he was equally unprepared for the toll of 34 radiation treatments and two rounds of chemotherapy.
By November, the avid outdoorsman, just 53 years old, had collapsed and was rushed to the University of Virginia Medical Center.
That’s where he met Olivia Calzada, a University of Virginia nursing student on her oncology rotation.
With his mouth, neck and vocal cords still sore, Owings – who is director of food safety for a Connecticut-based chemical company, BioSafe Systems – found himself with little ability to talk, and spent a largely silent week in the hospital coming to grips with his disease, its treatment and the knowledge that he’d have a feeding tube inserted to provide nourishment to his much-diminished frame.
Calzada, in the second of two years of clinical rotations that offer every nursing student a “buffet” of experiences working with different clinical populations, drew him out of his funk. And Owings, despite the fog of painkillers, remembered.
“It just wasn’t so clinical,” he said. “She asked me personal questions, getting me to not think about what I was going through. She seemed truly concerned, like she really cared, and even came in to check on me on her day off, met my wife, my brother. We talked about normal things – family, music, growing up. It was something normal in an abnormal place. It was definitely comforting to me.”
Brief as their time together was, Calzada made a lasting impression on Owings, who vowed to find the student who’d tended him so tenderly during his six-day hospital stay once he was back on his feet by early 2013.
The search wasn’t easy. Between 20 to 30 nurses cared for him during his stay at U.Va., by his count, and the Medical Center staff weren’t sure which nursing students had been present on the eighth floor during his stay. But Owings remembered Calzada played the clarinet in the Cavalier Marching Band, that she had spent her childhood in Mexico, and that she hoped to move to California.
Finally, nursing professors Lucy Goeke and Jeanne Erickson queried their students about the cancer patient determined to get back in touch with the young woman who’d cared for him: Calzada, remembering Owings, said she was 99 percent sure it was her.
The two met again in late April after Owing’s neck surgery in late March, 100 percent certain of their connection.
“You look great,” said Calzada, who, out of habit, rushed to get her former patient a cup of water. “I’ve never seen you stand up, and out of bed!”
The two will see one another again May 18 when Owings and his wife Darlene attend Calzada’s School of Nursing pinning ceremony at Old Cabell Hall, the day before the nursing student earns her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree.
Calzada, who lived in Mexico until moving with her family to Northern Virginia when she was in middle school, said she has made “lifelong friendships” at U.Va. through her involvement in several groups, including the marching band, the University Judiciary Committee and the Raven Society. The soon-to-be graduate, who is also majoring in Spanish in the College of Arts & Sciences, said these groups “make me feel like I will forever be a part of this community regardless of where I end up” – which in her near future is likely to be as an emergency department nurse at U.Va. or University of California, Los Angeles, where she participated in a highly selective summer internship.
Calzada and Owings plan to stay in touch by email after graduation.
Calzada said her experience with Owings “reinforces my passion for nursing,” adding, “Our instructors always say that there’ll be a patient or two that you remember in particular,” she added. “Russell is that for me. He impacted me a lot.”
“I feel like you’re part of our family,” Owings said.