Lorelei Graham, my oncology nurse practitioner for over ten years, leans toward me. We are inside a small, windowless examination room. It is cool and familiar here, though outside it is a scorchingly hot July 2020 day.
Deep into the first wave of COVID, we are both face-covered and distanced. With her feet firmly planted, she holds me in her sympathetic gaze. I’m here for my every-three-week Herceptin treatment and normally, we would be chatting about our summer plans and kids.
But not today. Just an hour before my appointment, my father died of complications due to COVID, which he contracted earlier in July.
Lorelei does not take her eyes off me. She does not try to move along with my appointment or enter notes. She calmly invites me to cry and patiently waits.
Nurse practitioners play vital roles in a cancer team In general, they work with the oncologist, regardless of practice setting or function, to carry out the patient’s plan of care and triage all of the problems that may arise. [They] have significant skills to contribute to the process of patient care as planners, providers, and evaluators of care. And they help improve safety and quality of care, as well as outcomes. In my case, Lorelei Graham is the most critical member of my cancer team, and I credit her for helping to keep me alive!
Medical Oncologist Dr. Kevin Fox, Lorelei’s longtime colleague and friend, says, “She has an endless supply of compassion, grace, and empathy. If she ever has a bad day, I haven’t seen one in ten years.” And it is true.
A self-proclaimed horrible multi-tasker, Lorelei has been by my side for over ten years. When I was first diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer at 40, Lorelei did not fill me with false platitudes to make me feel better. She skillfully guided me through a radical right breast mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction surgery, listened to my litany of complaints during each devastating round of chemotherapy, and helped me to navigate my new life on Tamoxifen.
Then, when I was diagnosed at the end of 2019 with metastatic breast cancer, Lorelei was there. Yes, she was there to calm me. Yet, more importantly, she was there to help me to understand my treatment plan and its potential side effects and to assure me that I was going to be able to manage my metastatic diagnosis one day at a time.
“Lorelei is such a kindhearted soul and really takes the time to get to know you and what is going on with you. She has made me feel so special so many times just by helping me out as if I am one of her patients! I am blessed every day to be able to work by her side and she is by far the most extraordinary nurse I have ever come across!” says Danielle Moyer, Administrative Assistant at Penn Medicine.
Other Penn Medicine colleagues agree. They know Lorelei has “so much experience” and is an “asset to the team.” They can always “turn to her with questions,” and she “goes the extra mile to provide support to all of her patients.” Her patients concur, saying she is “extremely capable and knowledgeable,” “attentive,” and “thorough and compassionate.”
When I am able to stop crying for a moment, Lorelei inches slightly toward me and gently asks if she can hold my hands, and I say “yes.” I feel her strength. Because of Lorelei—the way she makes me feel comfortable and confident, the way she cares deeply for me, her other patients and colleagues, and her always professional attitude and manner—I realize that like other obstacles, I will eventually be able to face this one, too.
Just like Dr. Kevin Fox says, “There is no one on earth like her.”
Because of Lorelei’s profound influence on my cancer care, I nominated her for the Extraordinary Healer Award for Oncology Nursing 2022. A version of this essay appears in CURE Extraordinary Healer Volume 16. Although she did not win, she was thrilled and honored to be recognized in this way. For those of us who are in her care or have the pleasure to be her colleague, we know that Lorelei Graham is extraordinary.