As an oncology nurse, Santa Clarita native Jennifer Metcalf never guessed she’d be taking a turn on the other side of the stethoscope.
Metcalf works the night shift at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank and recently found herself a patient in her own hospital after being diagnosed with stage 3B classic Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I was taken care of on my own unit that I work at — that’s what got me through it,” Metcalf said. “If it had to be anywhere, it would be there.”
The journey from nurse to patient
“Ever since the beginning of August, it’s been a crazy ride,” Metcalf said, noting that it began when her grandmother, who she helped take care of with her dad, died in August.
She and her fiancé, Justin, then traveled to Hawaii, taking a big step in their relationship and getting engaged on Aug. 25.
It wasn’t long after that trip that Metcalf, who hadn’t been feeling well for some time, realized something was very wrong.
In fact, it was her coworkers who pushed her to seek treatment after she began losing weight, appeared pale and was short of breath, among other symptoms.
“That last week I kind of knew what was going on,” Metcalf said. “I knew something was wrong beforehand. I just didn’t know how bad.”
After an appointment with her primary care doctor and some bloodwork, Metcalf got the call that confirmed those worries.
“My hemoglobin was five and usually hemoglobin is about 15, so that’s why I was pale,” Metcalf added.
While she said she was really scared, she immediately made two very important phone calls.
“I called my mom right away and I called my insurance to make sure I could go to my hospital because that’s where I wanted to be,” Metcalf said.
Discovering the cause of her symptoms
Metcalf would spend the next eight days in the hospital, realizing many of the causes behind the symptoms she’d been feeling.
“They showed me this huge mass on my lung,” Metcalf said of her first chest x-ray when admitted to the emergency room. “That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, I definitely did not know that was there,’ so that was a shock.”
And while Metcalf had noticed a lump on her neck, she’d chalked it up to a residual swollen lymph node from a prior bout with COVID-19, but a CT scan found additional swollen lymph nodes around her pancreas and liver.
“They wanted to start treatment on me in the hospital … and give me my first chemo ASAP,” Metcalf said of the moments following her biopsies and official diagnosis, leaving her no time to harvest her eggs, as it was too lengthy of a process.
Taking on the cancer fight
Since her release from the hospital, Metcalf has received chemo every two weeks, a routine she will continue until at least March, she said.
And though she’s returned to the hospital for treatment, she’s been unable to return to work, even just to visit.
“I wish I could go to work (but) I’m the one that’s immunocompromised now,” Metcalf said. “A little cold can turn into pneumonia for me and I (couldn’t) get treatment, then that’s not good.”
As someone who’s usually a social butterfly, it’s been most difficult not being able to go out, but her friends and family, along with her coworkers, have continued to support her, checking up on her constantly.
“If I didn’t have that (support), I don’t know what I would do,” Metcalf added.
Metcalf has also garnered a lot of support from the community after her soon-to-be father-in-law, Chris Sweeney, started a GoFundMe for her.
And whether friend, high school acquaintance, stranger or anonymous donor, Metcalf said it’s been insane to see the outpouring of support she’s received.
“It’s overwhelmingly beautiful to see the support,” Metcalf said. “We feel so blessed because there are certain things that insurance doesn’t cover. … I’m a worrywart, I like to keep my ducks in a line, so it’s definitely decreased my stress levels.”
Staying positive through the fight
In dealing with her cancer diagnosis, Metcalf has found her mantra is to enjoy the good days and deal with the bad days.
“I know I’m not going to have good days, and that’s OK, but if there are good days, I’m going to utilize them,” Metcalf said. “Basically, (I’m) just trying to stay positive and keep on telling myself, ‘This is only a season. This is a small period of my life, and then we’ll get back to it.”
Metcalf said she’s looking forward to the future, including getting married and buying a home for herself, Justin, and her puppy, Theo, and cat, Hendrix.
It’s this positive attitude that Sweeney has admired about Metcalf, he said, as she’s already looking ahead to the future.
“She’s absolutely the sweetest person I’ve ever met in my life,” he added, “and she’s taking this in stride. Since she’s a nurse, she’s taken a clinical attack on it and has been distancing herself from the emotional part . … But she’s a spectacular person who didn’t deserve this.”
Learning from being the patient
As she looks forward to returning to nursing, Metcalf is eager to take the lessons she’s learned from being a patient and put them into her practice.
“Oncology is not just physical, it’s a lot on the mental side,” Metcalf said, noting that she’ll be able to relate to her patients.
Metcalf’s also learned a lot about the different aspects of nursing, like nurse navigators who provide oncology patients such as herself with support.
“And I’m like, ‘I want to do this for a living. This is amazing,’ so it’s been eye-opening for sure,” Metcalf said.
Calling others to learn from her mistakes
Working in health care through the pandemic, Metcalf said she almost felt she was too worried about others to be worried about herself, probably missing some of the warning signs and ignoring others.
“My doctors and nurses said that I probably could have caught this at least a year ago if I was just going in for normal routine (checkups),” Metcalf said. “Honestly, I do regret not going into (the doctor) sooner, but I think I was a little bit in denial because I was like, ‘I’m young. I’ll feel better.’”
It was her co-workers’ push to seek treatment that Metcalf says saved her life, and now, she’s hoping to do the same for others.
“My big thing is to go get your checkup, even if you’re young … don’t push back seeing your doctor,” Metcalf added. “Even if you’re young, you can get sick. … We’re not superheroes just because we’re in our 20s.”