On the other side of the bed
June 16, 2016
In her 45 years of nursing, Debi Boyle,
RN, has accumulated a wealth of
knowledge. At UC Irvine Medical
Center, Boyle is an oncology clinical nurse
specialist and serves as a resource for
nurses and the interdisciplinary team
on patient care issues in cancer and
UC Irvine Medical Center
holds Magnet Recognition for nursing
excellence. Boyle has worked in oncology
for 35 years, has a master’s degree from
Yale and has authored more than 200
publications and four books.
But it was her personal experiences
with cancer that changed her.
battled lung cancer for five years, and
her husband, Jerry, eventually died from
bladder cancer at age 53. These events
caused her to reexamine what nursing is
and the impact nurses have on the lives
of so many.
Debi Boyle shares her story
As a daughter of a patient, I was struck by the compassionate care I received at my
father’s bedside—especially when he wasn’t doing well. These nurses’ expertise was not
about lab values and ensuring the IV fluids were administered at a certain rate. They
were about addressing my emotional distress of losing a father, a central person in my life.
The nurses asked me about my pain and allowed me to voice my sorrow. When my husband became
seriously ill, I was again confronted with coping with the everyday demands of being a caregiver and
the sole family provider while also attempting to deal with the emotional labor of loss.
I knew too much to negate what was coming before me. My husband became ill about two years
after we were married. He had major surgery and chemotherapy; then he required radiation when
the cancer spread to his bones.
Terrible pain and debilitation ultimately caused him to become bed-bound. While I always
thought of myself as an empathetic nurse, I didn’t really understand how much responsibility we
impose on families until I was on the opposite side of the bed. We expect families to be the nurses
at home, 24/7, with no training and no support. On top of that, they’re anxious and worried, and
this causes confusion and fear about not doing the right thing for your loved one.
I remember being in the bathroom one day with all of Jerry’s medications spread out across the
sink, and I was getting mixed up in terms of what to give him. I remember thinking, “If I can’t keep
track of this, how can a layperson do it?”
After I returned to work, I had newfound appreciation for the family’s role in cancer care. I
realized that they need someone to listen to them, and they need help. Now I routinely ask, “What’s
worrying you? What don’t you understand? What can I do to help?”
Admitting the need for help often is hard for family members because they want us to focus our
attention on their loved ones. But we need to assume they are struggling, rather than assume they’re
doing OK. While I learned it the hard way, I now know that cancer truly is a family disease.
— Debi Boyle, RN, UC Irvine Health oncology clinical nurse specialist
— UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications
Featured in UC Irvine Health Live Well Magazine Summer 2016