Allyson Leonard has been a nurse for a decade.
For four of those years, Leonard, of Littlestown, Pennsylvania, has been at Carroll Hospital working as an operating room nurse. Prior to that, she started on the floor in the hospital in York, Pennsylvania, and then spent two years in a Hanover, Pennsylvania, hospital operating room.
And while it’s always been a tough job — long hours and late nights — these last 10 months have been particularly challenging.
On Jan. 5, Leonard was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. She’s been fighting ever since.
“It was a big shock,” Leonard said.
But, it’s something she’s been able to handle, in large part due to her co-workers at Carroll Hospital.
Any place you work there are positives and negatives, Leonard said. But those negatives don’t seem to matter much anymore.
“For me though, even when there’s a negative, I look at these people and I remember when so-and-so brought me fried chicken and coleslaw and I was so happy,” she said, later adding, “they’re my family.”
A daunting diagnosis
Leonard spent the holidays at the end of 2017 getting tests — mammograms and biopsies — and waiting for results. And as a nurse, Leonard said, she worked hard not to jump to conclusions, instead thinking she would likely be fine.
But on Jan. 5, she took the day off, fearing what the results of her tests would be.
“I was afraid they were going to tell me that it was cancer,” she said.
And it was.
Leonard said the doctor called to tell her she had triple-negative breast cancer, “which they kind of say is the worst kind, which is scary,” she said. This type of cancer is less receptive to chemotherapy, she said, adding that if one drug doesn’t work, you run out of drug options.
But, Leonard said, she was lucky.
Within three days she saw one doctor — within five, she saw an oncologist, both at Carroll Hospital. Not everyone who goes through this fight is able to get in right away to see doctors, but that’s exactly what you want to be able to do once you find out your diagnosis, she said.
Once she saw doctors, a treatment plan was formed — six months of chemotherapy, then surgery, then radiation. The third part of the plan just began.
“I am cancer-free, they say at this time,” she said, adding that the radiation is preventative.
Being a patient has been hard, she said, especially when she’s used to being on the other end. But Leonard said she tried her best to not complain and to behave, because she knows how hard it is being the nurse in the situation.
“Sometimes it makes it difficult, sometimes it makes it easier, the fact that I’m in health care,” she said.
Leonard took the first three months off work while she began chemotherapy.
“I just needed to process this,” she said, adding that she needed to step back from being a nurse and put herself first, something Leonard said she isn’t used to.
For Leonard, all of the support has been what she needed to keep going, and has allowed her to keep her job.
“I’ve had ups and downs as a nurse,” she said.
She came to the profession after being a dental assistant, and put herself through Harrisburg Area Community College.
“It was hard to move into the OR,” she said, later adding, “I didn’t want to lose what I’d worked so hard for.”
The staff at Carroll Hospital made it all possible.
Leonard said she remembered asking herself how she would handle the diagnosis, work and being a mom.
In came Bethany Shaffer, a surgical assistant at the hospital, who essentially took over, and after putting up a calendar where co-workers could take shifts and make meals, making sure Leonard was fed every day.
The two live on the same road in Littlestown, Leonard added.
“We became friends working here and I guess once I got diagnosed our friendship really blossomed because she really stepped up and basically came in my home and didn’t leave. Like every day she was there and kind of took over,” Leonard said, laughing.
Some days, Leonard said she didn’t want to get out of bed. But she knew Shaffer was coming, and that was motivation to get up and keep going.
Many times, Shaffer — in addition to the food — would call Leonard and ask her what else she needed. Even the days Leonard said nothing, Shaffer would bring essentials, from toilet paper to trash bags.
To Leonard, it meant the world. But for Shaffer, it was a no-brainer.
Shaffer said Leonard came into a staff meeting one day, and “flat out told us she had cancer.” Shaffer said she’s pretty sure the entire room began crying.
“Me and her both aren’t huggers but I went back and hugged her and said, ‘We’ve got this, don’t worry,’ ” Shaffer added.
Lisa Burmeister, director of surgical services, said operating room teams are very cohesive, and when something happens to one of them, they all rise to the occasion to offer support.
“That’s what happened here,” Burmeister said, later adding, “They just did all these things to keep [Leonard’s] spirits uplifted.”
Co-workers donated paid time off for her as well, Burmeister said, so Leonard could take the days she needed.
The diagnosis was a big hit to Leonard, Burmeister said.
“She was going about her daily work, working full time as an OR nurse, and she gets this diagnosis just boom, out of the blue,” she said.
Burmeister said it’s special to watch Leonard’s hospital family step up and do everything necessary to help her through treatment.
“It’s always so heartwarming to see a group of people rise to the occasion to care for somebody like that,” she said.
In addition to the food and groceries, Shaffer got to help in an even bigger way — she was the surgical assistant on Leonard’s surgery.
“There’s just a special bond when you get to operate on someone that’s your close friend,” she added.
Pay it forward
On the last day of Leonard’s chemo, Shaffer and the rest of the staff kicked things up a notch.
They got her a private room to have her last treatment, and decked that room out in signs and decorations. They also put signs in windows on the surgery wing, which has windows that face the cancer center where patients are receiving chemotherapy.
“We went all out. We just went crazy,” Shaffer said.
They also took a giant group photo wearing all of their pink hats, shirts and bracelets to give to Leonard, she said, “just to let her know she really did have a family of people behind her.”
Shaffer said they didn’t tell Leonard they were doing anything, instead, wanting to surprise her.
“Her face just lit up when she saw it,” Shaffer added.
And now, after the support she’s gotten, Leonard said she wants to try to help others. Leonard said she wants to get a bell in the cancer center as well, so that people can ring the bell when they have their last chemo as well.
Shaffer has already made generic signs to hang for others on their last day of chemotherapy.
“We really want to continue that for other people that are over there,” Leonard said.