The most difficult day of Alyse Betchner’s life convinced her to become a nurse.
“When I was 18, I got pregnant in high school. I ultimately decided on adoption, which is such an emotional thing all in itself,” she said. “Going into the hospital, the nursing staff … were never judgmental, never showed any sort of disappointment in that decision or the fact that I was an 18-year-old coming in pregnant.
“I just wanted to make sure that, at some point in my life, I make that kind of an impact on someone else. How can they make someone who is a complete stranger to them feel so loved?”
Betchner, an oncology and hospice nurse at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, has spent the past four years doing exactly that.
She works with patients in difficult and sometimes hopeless times, when they’re being treated for cancer or have only weeks or months to live.
It’s her job to help patients and their families feel comfortable in a crisis, whether that means dressing a wound or lending an ear for a story.
“You really get to know the families. You don’t always get to know the patients, because a lot of times they’ll come in and they’re not responsive,” Betchner said. “But you get to hear stories (about) who that person was through their whole life. I think it’s such a blessing for families to share that with us.”
Even more than other types of nursing, oncology and hospice take a heavy toll on the people immersed in it.
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After years of facing death head-on, Betchner is not desensitized. She still feels the weight that patients and families carry, and it sometimes causes her to break down.
There was one patient, a younger woman who had been diagnosed with cancer, who made a particularly strong impression.
“The fact that they pushed through the rest of their life — going through schooling, getting married, continuing to not let the diagnosis take over their life — I don’t know how they did it,” Betchner said. “I’m sure her mom loved me, because I cried with her all the time when none of her kids wanted to cry.”
People who work in hospitals often say it’s important to draw a line in the sand, to separate work life from home life for the sake of their sanity. But Betchner is a naturally emotional person. There are times when her line just disappears, as if the tide rolled in and washed it away.
“I think that’s why so many of us are good nurses, because we can’t shut off the work and home,” she said. “We sit around and think about patients all the time, hope they’re having a good day. Even if we can’t be there, we’re still thinking about them.”
When Betchner has a particularly tough day, she leans on her fellow oncology nurses. They come from a place of shared understanding, she said, because they’ve all dealt with pain and loss and the stress that comes with them.
At home, she has a different kind of support system.
Betchner and her husband recently had a baby, a boy with a big personality and a knack for making odd faces, who gives even the darkest days a silver lining.
Driving home from work, “I’ll blast music and pretend I’m in a different place,” she said. “Then I’ll hug my baby and kiss my husband good night, and wake up the next morning and do it again.”