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Dome - Saved by the Bell

Dome, Nov. 2009

Saved by the Bell

By: Judy Minkove
Date: November 9, 2009

A new ritual in Weinberg wins applause

The author and her daughter, Rachel
The author and her daughter, Rachel, celebrate the end of her radiation treatment.

Up until last September, I had never stepped foot in Radiation Oncology—nor did I want to. But that all changed as my daughter, Rachel, 26, neared the end of her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Diagnosed in October 2008, she received chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant at Johns Hopkins. Rachel went through so much. As a mother, I had never felt so bereft, so helpless—there’s nothing worse than watching your child suffer.Then we learned that Rachel had a complete response to treatment, and the doctor suggested radiation to shrink lingering nodes and to prevent recurrence. We were elated to have reached this point. Four weeks later, assuming all went well, Rachel could get on with her life.

On the first day we walked into Radiation Oncology, we soon noticed an oddly shaped piece of steel dangling near a wall in a waiting area. We wondered what it was, until we saw a patient strike it like a gong. Then we realized that we were witnessing a momentous rite of passage—the end-of-treatment bell.

The bell rings every day; it can even be heard in the adjoining Weinberg garage. But it’s hard to say what’s louder, the bell or the ovation from oncology patients that ensues.

Up to 140 patients a day come through the unit for treatment. Used as an adjunct to chemotherapy or as a definitive treatment to control malignant cells, radiation therapy requires patients to lie motionless in awkward positions while red lasers pinpoint the site to be treated. 

Marian Richardson, the unit’s nurse manager, acknowledges that the therapy is pretty grueling. Patients return daily for four to eight weeks of treatment, which can bring on side effects like burning, itchy skin, nausea and fatigue.

She’d read about an end-of-treatment bell at her former employer in Houston that boosted spirits and became an instant hit with patients and staff. So two years ago, Richardson presented the idea to her team. She suggested that the unit hold a poetry contest. The best poem would be framed and posted next to the bell.

“We all thought Marian was crazy,” recalls radiation oncology clinical associate Roz Watson, who, like several others, feared that no one would go near the bell. “What if patients have a relapse and need to come back for more treatments?”

But the bell has turned out to be the best thing Richardson could have done, admits Watson. Hardly a day goes by that she doesn’t hear patients say, “When it’s my turn, I’m gonna hit that thing so hard!”

Even Richardson has been surprised by the bell’s impact. From the outset, enthusiasm ran high. More than 15 people submitted poems. The winning entry, voted on by staff, came from Mary Kathleen Adcock, who had battled stage IV tonsil cancer and is now in remission. As it happens, Adcock’s sister, Maggie Dudik, is a Weinberg radiation oncology nurse who is in remission for breast cancer.

“I know what it’s like to go through this,” says Dudik. “It’s such a wonderful thing to watch patients hit that bell. People fly in relatives, take pictures and bring in cake.”

And my family was no different. On the last day of my daughter’s treatment, I felt like my heart would burst. We invited 20 friends and family members. One of our guests, who herself had battled Hodgkin’s said, “You’ll remember this day like you’ll remember her wedding.”

It was the culmination of a dark year-long journey when Rachel rang that bell last month, and she hit it with every ounce of strength she could muster. I can  still conjure the sound. Says Rachel, “I feel like it’s ringing in a new year—a fresh start—a time for health and happiness.”


The Winning Poem

Your day has come to strike the bell!

Your silent heart has much to tell

And much to toll this proud new day

Treatment done, you’re on your way.

—Mary Kathleen Adcock

radiation patient